Meet The Sri Lankan Undertaker Breaking All The Social Boundaries
In southern Sri Lanka, a young Ruwanwella woman defies social convention to do a job she is passionate about, that allows her to earn, and to learn about life.
She performs delicate surgeries on human faces with makeup and other materials, making them look fresh and rested. But N.A.K. Dinusha Kumari is not a beautician or a cosmetic surgeon. She is an undertaker, unusual in Sri Lanka not just because she is a woman but also because of her age: She is 22.
Kumari has never shied away from breaking gender boundaries. Her family is from Ruwanwella and at one stage, Kumari surprised locals when she started helping her father in his mechanic’s garage and learning to drive heavy vehicles. Kumari’s father also worked at a co-operative funeral parlour and it was there that Kumari learned how to embalm a dead body and prepare it for burial.
After finishing school, Kumari decided to open her own funeral parlour. At the Kumari Funeral Parlour, she does everything herself, from driving the hearse to embalming the bodies.
When people come to get their cars fixed, they often get scared. Some are so afraid of a coffin.
“Because I had seen my father do this kind of work since I was much younger I had no fear of the corpses,” Kumari explains. “By the time I left school, I knew how to embalm – by the time I turned 22, I had embalmed about 65 bodies. And I do a good job. People want to see their relatives looking nice, even after death. So when somebody dies, they come to me.”
Embalming between ten and 15 bodies a month earns Kumari around 250,000 rupees (about EU1,550). Sometimes Kumari will drop her prices or perform her services for free if the family cannot afford a funeral. Eventually she hopes to buy her own car and she is also looking into purchasing some land where she may be able to build her own funeral parlour.
Currently she works from home. After rent at her most recent premises was increased, Kumari decided to move her business into her family home. Now the funeral parlour sits next to her father’s garage.
“When people come to get their cars fixed, they often get scared when they see the equipment for the funeral parlour,” Kumari says, laughing. “Some are so afraid of a coffin.”
These days Kumari’s mother, Vinitha Silva, also assists her daughter with the work. She has no problem with her daughter doing a job that men usually do.
“If we had a son, he would be doing this,” she tells The Catamaran. “But we have a daughter and she has decided to do this. Now her father runs the garage and she runs the funeral parlour. Our family earns an income on which we can live and we have no debts. Anyway,” Silva continues, “this is actually more of a service than a job. You need commitment – and my daughter has that.”
Kumari’s father, Manjula Jayashantha, feels the same. “When I was embalming bodies I told her she could look if she wasn’t afraid,” he recounts. “She understood everything and she also knows all the myths and legends about death and ghosts. But if we all die in the end, what are we afraid of?”
Kumari also helps the mourners, Jayashantha suggests. “When they see her they are surprised to see such a young girl delivering the body of their loved one – and they stop crying. I am very proud of her,” he adds.
“My friends often ask me whether I am afraid,” Kumari adds. “But I’ve never even had a dream about one of the people I have embalmed. Dead people don’t make trouble. Only living people can do that. And everybody should be respected. When I work I always remember this.”
There’s only one job that Kumari won’t take on and this is the preparation of the dead body of a small child. “Once I prepared the body of a 15-year-old girl after a friend asked me to. After that I decided I would no longer work on the bodies of small children. I was very sensitive about it and I cannot explain the feeling,” Kumari notes.
Working with the dead has enriched Kumari’s life in other unexpected ways too. She feels that she has learned a lot for someone so young.
“In the end, it doesn’t matter how rich you are,” she says. “You may leave the earth in an old dress or in silk, with some wilted flowers and a few pieces of coloured wood around you. It is enough just to make enough money. Everyone should live well until their last second and be happy.”