He died suddenly, over dinner. Chest pains had been bothering him for a few hours but he disregarded them, saying that it was merely indigestion and that people should stop worrying. He went out for dinner with friends and family at a restaurant and it was there that he died, collapsing suddenly as his heart stopped, his life vanishing as suddenly as the morning mist.
He was a Christian and had worked at the site manager for a church for several decades, earning a reputation for trustworthiness and kindness. It was to that church that his body was brought. A coffin was prepared, a thing of thin wood and black fabric, decorated with a single strip of silver fabric, and into the coffin his body was placed, smartly dressed in a clean shirt and trousers as though he did not want to disappoint God by slipping into eternity in old clothes.
The relatives all came. In Pakistan burials take place quickly, usually within 24 hours, and no relative would want to disrespect the deceased by not attending the burial. They came from all over the Punjab. They left jobs and family life; no employer would begrudge them the day off. Family networks are strong here, one of the few sources of support available to Pakistanis bereft of money or connections.
The funeral was swift: a Punjabi zabur (Psalm), sung from memory, and a reading from Scripture. A simple but powerful message was given from the pulpit, one of strength and comfort drawn from the truth of the Bible and the confidence that Christians have in the eventual resurrection from the dead. The congregation were invited to gather around the coffin. A woman fainted. Others wept, wailing openly over the face of their uncle or brother or father or friend, their grief made raw by the suddenness of it all: one minute ordering food and sipping Coke, the next dead, gone, a life ended.
The coffin was placed into a van and was driven to the cemetery. Here are buried Christians from several centuries, from British imperialists to contemporary Pakistani Christians: he would share a patch of soil with the deceased “NCOs and Men of the Somerset Light Infantry, 1917-1919” and with his own wife, buried nearby after passing away a decade ago.
The mourners filed through the cemetery as dusk settled over the city, illuminating their path with the light of their mobile phones. The coffin was nailed shut, his face seeing the light for the very last time, and was laid into the grave. More prayers were said, spoken loudly over the sound of sobbing. A bottle of rosewater was poured over the coffin and handfuls of soil were tossed in. His son wailed, sudden and stunningly loud. The grave was filled. Lavish handfuls of rose petals were poured on top and candles and incense sticks were studded into the soil until the fragrant smoke rendered the fresh soil all but invisible.
Christians do not grieve as those without hope. This does not mean, though, that we do not grieve. The pain of burying a father still cuts deep. The sudden disappearance of a human being, the vanishing of an existence, the final full stop at the end of a life’s tale – this is an event accompanied by pain and loss. Yet there is still hope. There is always hope. More than that: there is assurance. As the mourners made their way out of the dark cemetery, as the bats swooped and flitted around the streetlights, squeaking softly, hope still lingered, delicate and eternal.