Over a cup of plain tea, Chaminda was having a leisurely chat with
his colleague, Samare. Both of them worked at a funeral parlour in
Colombo. Business was slack at his workplace, which depended mainly in
attending to the funeral rites of soldiers killed during the war which
raged in the North. Chaminda was from a village, in the less developed
Southern part of the country. Although he had high ambitions of becoming
a doctor, his father's sudden death, which occurred due to snakebite,
thwarted his plans and he had to find a job to keep the home fires
He came to the city at the behest of his cousin who was working at
the Colombo Harbour as a labourer. He had worked at the harbour as a
casual labourer, but was laid off when the contractor finished the work
assigned to him and could not get another contract.
Chaminda never dreamt that he would have to work as an assistant to a
funeral undertaker and embalm dead bodies. However, the pay was good and
after his marriage to his cousin Somapala's wife's sister, he had to
find a house to live and send money home to his widowed mother, which
doubled his expenses. Chaminda lived in a tenement named 'S.T.F. Watte.'
It took him nearly two years to realize that S.T.F. meant Seven Hundred
and Twenty-five, the number attached to the tenement by the Municipal
Council. He earlier thought that it was an abandoned Army camp, as S.T.F.
meant Special Task Force, an elitist Commando Group unit of the Sri
As usual, at the funeral parlour, the radio was on, and the workers
were listening to music on a popular channel. Suddenly, the music
stopped and there was an announcement that the terrorists bombed an Army
truck on its way to an Army Camp close by resulting with a large number
of casualties. Although Chaminda was petrified, the owner of the funeral
parlour came running up to where the workers were relaxing and told
them, "Get ready to work late as we are getting business." Unlike in
other places, death was a good business for the funeral parlour.
Chaminda felt sorry for the poor soldiers, and he knew that many of them
joined the army as they could not get another job. In about three hours
time, six bodies of soldiers were brought to the parlour, and Chaminda
was entrusted with embalming two bodies. As he approached the body of a
young soldier who looked about 23 years, he noticed a slight movement in
one of the fingers of the dead body! He ran up to the proprietor of the
funeral parlour and told him, "Mudalali, this solider seems to be
alive!" "You bloody fool," the Mudalali shouted at him. "These bodies
were sent from the hospital and the doctor has certified that they are
dead. Are you a medical doctor to over-rule the decision of the doctor,
you donkey?" thundered the proprietor. "Go back and get on with the
Chaminda went back to the dead soldier. He had recently asked the
proprietor for a loan to redeem the jewellery he had pawned belonging to
his wife. He had promised to do so as they had to attend the wedding of
his sister-in-law the next day. Mala, his wife, refused to go to the
wedding without the jewellery and was crying that she had to undergo
much humiliation after marrying Chaminda.
It was not his fault that he did not earn much money as his take home
pay depended on the number of bodies he embalmed. If he did not embalm
this soldier he would never get his loan, and he will have to face the
wrath of his wife. He looked at the apparently dead soldier and again he
noticed a slight movement in the fingers.
He was convinced that the soldier was alive but then how could he be
sure? He was not a doctor as the proprietor had pointed out, and a
mistake could cost him his job. He only had to inject the formalin and
get through the formalities. Even if the soldier had some life, he would
be dead within seconds. He would get his loan and his job would be
secure. Chaminda looked again at the young soldier.
He must be married with a loving wife awaiting his return, or the
father to a little child, awaiting his father's return from the
battlefront bringing toys for his birthday. If he was not married, his
aged parents may be awaiting their son's return to celebrate the New
Year. If this soldier was alive as he had felt the warmth in the body,
could he kill him in cold blood? The thought sent shivers through
Chaminda's body. Could I kill a man for my survival?
Chaminda thought of the five precepts he takes every morning before
the Buddha. He thought of his dead father and widowed mother who had
instilled in him that he should not kill and even prevented him from
joining the Army. Many of his classmates had joined the Army and he once
had to embalm the body of a young officer who was a classmate. He had
felt revulsion that day and he had gone over to a pub and drank until
his sorrow subsided. The struggle was going on over his mind as he saw
his colleagues "getting on with the job" as they called it. Bathing the
nude body, cleaning the wounds, injecting the formalin, opening the
stomach and taking the entrails out, taking out the other organs and
suturing the cuts like a surgeon. Applying soap and shaving the face,
dressing up the soldier in the new uniform provided by the Army, with
all the medals pinned, putting on the gloves and making the soldier prim
and proper were the chores he performed over the two years he had worked
as a good embalmer and he was paid well.
Looking at the soldier, he was wondering whether he should inject the
formalin. Everyday in the morning he used to take a vow, "I will refrain
from killing any living being."
The stanza, first of the five precepts in Pali, the language in
ancient India where the Buddha lived and preached. From the time he
could speak, he used to take this vow and could he now break it for his
survival? On the other hand, if the doctor had certified that the
soldier was dead, he would be losing a good job for the whim.
The warmth may have been due to the heat during this time of the day,
and the twitching of the finger may have been his imagination. Chaminda
was in a quandary.
He took a deep breath and ran out of the funeral parlour. He saw a
Policeman close by and told him, "Officer, one of the soldiers inside
the parlour is not dead. Please call an ambulance!" He saw the policeman
going in and ran home never to comeback to work at the funeral parlour.