Negombo, Sri Lanka – Six weeks ago, Jude Fernando threw a party to welcome his sister and her three young children home to Sri Lanka. Now, after the Easter Sunday bombing of the nearby Church of Saint Sebastian, he is holding a wake.
His mother lies in a polished wooden coffin, her portrait on display among white chrysanthemums. Next to her, dressed in a favourite outfit and lying on a silky white cushion with fairy lights flashing in green, is the tiny body of his nephew.
He was eight months old.
“I had only had the chance to know him for one and a half months,” Fernando said tearfully as mourners sang liturgies for the dead. Fernando had to identify the boy’s bloody and battered body because his sister was too badly injured to do it.
Tuesday marked a National Day of mourning on the multi-ethnic and multi-religious island, but in the communities most affected by the weekend’s bomb attacks it was a day of wakes and funerals.
In the streets around Saint Sebastian where, on Easter morning, an attacker walked into the building and set off a bomb that was so powerful it blew off most of the roof and buckled the windows, throwing fragments of stained and mirrored glass into the bougainvillea-filled garden, it seemed the entire city came out to express its grief.
The first ceremonies were held under a giant canopy next to the damaged church, where forensics experts continued to carefully pick their way through the debris littering the floor.
Some 1,000 people came to pay their respects, sitting on plastic chairs on the sandy floor and crowding into the compound to recite the prayers and liturgies. As the service drew to a close the congregation sang ‘Ave Maria’ and the pallbearers, led by distraught families, walked the coffins slowly between the crowds to the waiting hearses.
|The mass funeral was guarded by members of Sri Lanka’s armed forces [Kate Mayberry/Al Jazeera]|
Father Gamini Fernando said the church decided on the mass funeral to allow more people to attend, but also because the security forces had advised it would be better. Mourners were required to go through bag and body checks before entering the church grounds, and soldiers, some drafted in from the island’s north and east, were on duty along the wall outside.
“For the people it is easy when we have the funeral service together,” Father Fernando said. “They died at the same time and we wanted to have all the funerals together.