Esther Browne took up her father’s profession, and became India’s only female undertaker. Here’s how she goes about her job.
First impressions can often be misleading. As one arrives at a quiet little cemetery in the dusty bylanes of West Delhi, one soon begins to realise how true that is in the case of Esther Browne. At first glance, she comes across as any other 41-year-old. She adores having a house full of friends, loves to dress up for a party, spends her weekends cooking for a niece, and takes off to the hills for some peace and quiet whenever she can. However, dig deeper and you will realise that Esther is anything but the average middle-aged woman.
With coffins and chisels as her choice of tools and cemeteries as her workplace, she is as different from her peers as anyone can be. Her decision to forgo the safety of a regular job to take up her “family’s profession” has given her the distinction of being the only woman undertaker in the country. “There are one or two women who assist their husbands in arranging funerals, but no one does it full-time like I do,” Esther says.
As Esther conducts a tour of the cemetery, she proudly shows off her work: a gleaming granite slab that she had chosen, a beautiful engraving on a tombstone, an ornate cross looking over a grave… “A lot of people question me about the morbidity of my work. However, to me, it is like lending a helping hand to a person. One has the right to dignified last rites and it is an honour for me to help arrange it,” she says. Having learnt the nuances of the job from her father, Reverend Browne, a respected funeral director of his time, Esther has now mastered the complexities of the job.
It isn’t easy putting people in the ground. Right from choosing the types of stones to be used as gravestones, to picking out the design for the coffins, she has to make sure that everything is perfect. “My father used to tell me that you gain respect of the workers only when you know how to do the legwork yourself,” says Esther who took over the reins from her father in 1986, when sudden deaths in the family left him mentally and physically broken. “It was a grave time for us when my father’s elder brother expired and a couple of months later my brother passed away as well. That’s when I decided to take up the profession,” says Esther.
Esther admits that this job is a far cry from regular jobs. Her mother had thought she would become a stenographer or typist, but Esther loves her work. “My mother soon began to admire the fact that I wasn’t squeamish about bathing dead bodies and that I truly was passionate about my work,” she smiles.
However, in choosing to be an undertaker, Esther had to make many difficult personal choices. While people lauded her for her decision, when it came to marriage not many were willing to accept her profession. “One family which came with a proposal for me waxed eloquent about how brave it was for a girl to be an undertaker. However, the very next minute they said that I will have to leave ‘all this’ after marriage,” she recalls. Esther immediately refused, as she wished to pursue her calling rather than spend a lifetime without it. “Maybe it is for this reason that women don’t specialise in this field, as they don’t get support from family or in-laws,” she adds.
One question that Esther gets asked a lot is if she has ever had paranormal encounters in her job. Though in the course of her career no spirits have come to haunt her from beyond the grave, she claims to have had a couple of brushes with spooks. “I must have been 12 at that time. I had accompanied my mother to
St James Church near Kashmere Gate, Delhi, when I suddenly saw a lady in a white sari standing at the rear door. Just the sight of her made my blood run cold. I asked my mother to turn back but she couldn’t see anyone. What was shocking was that she looked just like my aunt. So when we reached home I asked my aunt if she had come to the church. She looked at me in surprise and denied ever being in the vicinity. When I narrated my experience to her, she held me tight and sent up a prayer that I was safe. There is no explanation for what happened at the church. But it is one of my few brushes with ghosts. However, nothing of this sort has ever happened while I am at work,” she says with a chuckle.
Esther gets requests to handle funerals not just from Christian families but from Jewish and Parsi communities as well. This requires her to customise her skills in various ways; for instance, for the Jewish community, there are no ready graves. Hence, the moment a death occurs, Esther and her labourers are required to rush to the spot and start digging within minutes of having decided on the length and breadth of the grave. On several occasions, the families are not well-versed with the rituals and look to Esther for guidance. “At times like these, the families are so grief stricken that they can’t really focus on the rites and ceremonies. They can’t be expected to take decisions about whether the coffin should be lined with velvet or pink satin. You have to be there as a friend and not as a professional. So I take on whatever duties are required—right from bathing to perfuming and dressing the body and finally burying it,” explains Esther.
As she works with the deceased, she can often sense the person—whether he or she was outgoing or an introvert; would have preferred a quiet burial or a more ostentatious one. One time, when she was dressing the body of a Naga girl, Esther suddenly found herself thinking if the young woman would have preferred some make-up on. “It is just something which struck me, out of the blue. I asked her sister and she remarked that indeed the girl was fond of dressing up. So I simply bought some lipstick and blush-on and applied it to her face,” reminisces Esther.
Often, to make it easier for herself and her assistants, she talks to the body. She recalls the one time when an elderly gentleman had passed away in a hospital in South Delhi. “We had to shift him from the mortuary to the ambulance. Even in death, I don’t like to cause people any discomfort; hence we kept telling him that ‘Uncle don’t be angry with us, we are like your children’. Even though the person can’t talk back to you, still these last moments are extremely precious,” she says.
Often, in case of accidents and other unforeseen eventualities, the deceased’s families are not able to make it to the funeral on time; at such times Esther even fills in for family members.
The one incident that is seared in her memory is the 1996 air crash when Saudi Arabian Airlines flight 763 collided mid-air with Kazakhstan Airlines flight 1907 over the small village of Charkhi Dadri in Haryana. Esther kept a night-long vigil at All India Institute of Medical Sciences where most bodies had been brought. “It is an honour to be there for people at their time of need. It is that same blessed feeling you get when you are with the bride or groom during a wedding. I would not exchange this emotion for anything else in the world,” says Esther.