Though Kumbhakarna isn’t morbid by nature, he has to visit funeral houses as a matter of routine. More and more often, these funerals are held not in the homes of the deceased, but in funeral parlours. This is regarded as convenient to everyone concerned. Everyone, that is, except those who must shoulder the coffin down the stairs if the family can’t get the ground floor parlour and must settle for upstairs.
Kumbhakarna can’t claim to have visited all the funeral parlours in Colombo, but he has visited many in the city and suburbs, including the most reputed parlours in this grim business. Nowhere has he seen a lift available for this purpose. Kumbhakarna has no idea of the profit margins of the undertaker business, but, they can surely afford to install a service lift in their parlours. It should be good business, too, in the long run.
But why bother, since business has always been good (the war years’ boom is gone, but the peace time mortality rate seems to be good enough) and families of the deceased are ever willing to shoulder the coffin from upper floor to ground? Kumbhakarna has not suffered this burden so far. But one can imagine what it must be like to haul what is literally a dead weight (no pun intended) down a narrow staircase, usually built in two sections so that a difficult turn is required. The coffin is usually carried by the nearest family members, some of whom are quite old and very few of whom would have tried weightlifting in their spare time. It would take just one misstep (or one of the haulers to have a heart attack) for the coffin to come crashing down. It’s amazing that this hasn’t happened already somewhere in the city’s ever busy parlours. Hasn’t anyone ever complained?
Asking parlour employees this question, Kumbhakarna has always got negative answers, or puzzled, even hostile, looks. As a rule, funeral parlour people don’t like being asked questions, except those initially posed by family regarding funeral costs. Even then, one can get gruff answers. Kumbhakarna once had to phone a parlour when an old acquaintance died. The voice from the other end told him to come over to discuss, and hung up abruptly, which makes one wonder whether this is just another business like any other. Well, actually, no. It’s worse than most.
A lift would be useful in case of anyone disabled who wished to pay their last respects. The public services in this country, including transport terminals and public transport, take it for granted that the disabled do not exist (a complacent authority would point out that the five rupee coin has identification markings for the benefit of the blind, but this is precisely the point, because five rupee coins are what you hand out to beggars these days). Given the level of enthusiasm we have for the deaf, the blind, the mute, and the crippled, funeral parlours would be good places to start putting a lift for the benefit of wheel chair users.
Weddings and funerals have a number of things in common. The trend of marking both occasions away from home began in the 1980s. Dishwashing is always a drudgery and good porcelain was never cheap. The wedding business has kept a step ahead in this cutthroat world by having its reception halls on the ground floor. In those hotels with upper floor banquet halls, there is usually a lift. This is good news for all guests, young or old (Kumbharkarna has remarked that even the young prefer to take the lift to the first floor). He’s never seen a wedding guest arrive by wheelchair, nor with the aid of a white cane or an Alsatian. It may be that such disabilities are seen as purveyors of bad luck and hence only the truly fit and capable are invited. Good luck to them, because they will need all the ability they have when they try to shoulder a coffin from the upstairs parlour to the idling hearse.