Indian Christians pray at the All Saints Cathedral in Uttar Pradesh. Photo: AFP/Diptendu Dutta

When a Christian couple goes to a church to exchange wedding vows, the ceremony culminates with the oath, “…from this day forward until death do us part”. But in Gorakhpur in Uttar Pradesh in northern India, companionship is being redefined as couples go beyond the nuptial vow and arrange to rest in peace by their spouse’s side.

At Padleganj cemetery in Gorakhpur, as many as five couples have been buried next to each other over the last couple of years. In each case, the adjacent grave was booked when a spouse died and was buried.

Father CV Chan, head of the Christian Burial Board in Lucknow, says currently more than 15 people have booked graves at the Padleganj cemetery.

Anthony Simon, a resident of Asuran locality in Gorakhpur, died on September 27, 2012. His widow has booked space next to his grave so that she is laid to rest next to him.

Booking a grave in advance costs Rs 10,000 ($154), says Father Chan. He says the practice has no religious significance but has long existed among couples who express their love for the departed partner.

Census 2011 put the Christian population in the district at about 10,000. About 80 Christians die in Gorakhpur every year. At this rate, on paper, the Padleganj cemetery would run out of space in five-and-a-half decades. The cemetery is about 300 years old and has about 150 British graves.

In many parts of the world, there is a shortage of burial land and the price they pay for it is rising – England, Germany, Israel and Singapore are countries where people are forced to find alternatives. But Christian couples in Gorakhpur can make an advance booking, and they act out of love as much as the need to reserve a gravesite.

Love in a time of shrinking space

For Sunil Herschelle Mathew, who has reserved a spot for himself next to his wife’s grave, this is more of a tradition started by his father, who was buried next to his wife at the same cemetery. The death of his wife hit Mathew hard and he awaits his own passing with alcohol often in hand.

“I feel like she wants to talk to me and will come home with me every time I visit her grave. But it is not going to happen. I will have to die to be with her,” he says. Despite having attained everything he wanted in his life, Mathew says he feels a sense of incompleteness. “Now, I want to go where my darling is,” he slurs.

Sister Marian Guerre, principal of St Joseph’s School Civil Lines, says death cannot shake the bond between a husband and wife. “Nobody knows where one goes after death but the thought of being buried next to the spouse gives people some consolation or a sense of satisfaction in life,” she says.

Fr Chan says that to make space for future burials, graves that are more than 25 years old that lie neglected are being dug up. He says it is a common practice and the remains, if any, collected from dug-up graves are buried at one place. He believes the move to reserve burial space stems from a shortage of burial space for Christians in the region. After all, Gorakhpur lies in the most populous state of the world’s second most populous country.

“It has become a necessity for Christian people to reserve graves because they are not sure whether they will get one when they die,” he says.

With input from Harikesh Singh in Gorakhpur.