Dead Set on Helping
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Friday, November 22, 2019


Dead Set on Helping

By Htain Linn DECEMBER, 2003 - VOLUME 11 NO.10

Burma’s poverty means that even providing funerals for loved ones can be difficult if not impossible. Accompanied by some poor people, a famous Burmese movie star carries a coffin in Rangoon. In the coffin is the corpse of a poor man who is unrelated to the actor. This is not a scene for a film; it’s real. And to many people it’s amazing, because it’s so unheard of. The movie star, Kyaw Thu, has participated in many funerals as a sort of gravedigger, and he is vice president of a social welfare association known as the Free Funeral Services Society (FFSS). The association was founded three years ago in Rangoon, with the aim of helping people who cannot afford funerals for their family members. It is based in a monastery, the Byamma Vihara in Thingangyun Township in Rangoon. And the help it gives is making a lot of people happy. "I was so poor," says Sein Hla, a Rangoon resident who spoke by phone for the first time in her life. "When my daughter-in-law passed away I asked my neighbors to contact this association. They helped me for free. I am very grateful to them." Another Rangoon resident, Daung Yin, says, "On September ninth, my fifteen-year-old daughter passed away. Because I am retired, I didn’t have enough money for her funeral. So I contacted some members of this association and they helped from beginning to end. I was so pleased." He added that without the association’s help the funeral would have caused him much trouble. The FFSS began its work on Jan 1, 2001 with a ceremony for famous sculptor U Han Tin. The hearse was driven by Kyaw Thu. Two years later the association could boast that it had supported over thirteen thousand funerals. Some of the association’s founders got their inspiration from Byamaso, a social welfare association based in Mandalay. Following lengthy discussions, they founded the FFSS using their own money in May 2000. The association is non-profit, non-governmental, and apolitical. The original donors numbered less than ten. But among them were famous writers, film directors, and movie stars—including Kyaw Thu. He initially donated 500,000 kyat (US $500); his son and daughter donated two coffins. The FFSS offers help irrespective of race, religion, or socioeconomic status. And the help includes transportation, two days of cold storage, and cremation. "Everyone is overcome with grief when their family members die," says Aye Thant, the association’s president. "The feeling is the same whether you’re rich or poor. So we believe in helping everyone." When a person dies in Burma, normally family members fill out a death certificate from their local authorities and then send the corpse to a mortuary. The funeral ceremony and cremation occur two days later, although some opt to wait for five days. Today the FFSS has over 80 members, and it provides 20 to 25 free services daily. On average about 150 people die in Rangoon every day, so the FFSS is responsible for between 13 and 17 percent of the funerals. Each month the association spends 7.5 million kyat, and its hearse fleet is now ten vehicles. Generally the association uses reusable coffins, because they are used only for display purposes and not for burial. The association relies upon donations from various people inside and outside of Burma, to the tune of over 10 million kyat per month. Even the military government’s transportation minister and his family donated a half million kyat. A substantial donation came from the market of Nyaung Bin Lay, or "Small Banyan Tree." The market’s shopkeepers and workers donated 15 million kyat toward the purchase of a hearse. Donations also came from Burmese living in Japan, Taiwan, England and the US. A Burmese living in Japan donated a second-hand car to be used as a hearse. The association’s members use this money only to assist others. And Aye Thant says that they sometimes use their own personal money to pay for association meetings, for instance. The more money they get, he said, the more poor people they can help. But the association’s work is not without its problems. There is an old Burmese superstition that anyone whose livelihood depends on conducting funerals is tainted, as is that person’s family. "When I became involved with the funerals, I discovered that some actresses didn’t want to act with me and some movie producers didn’t want me to act for them," says Kyaw Thu. "The superstition led them to believe that by working with me they would lose money." The FFSS began in Rangoon, but Kyaw Thu has since founded chapters in several other towns, including Bogale, Seikkyi-Khanaungto, Amarapura, Bassein, Moulmein, Pa-an, Kyaukse, Natogyi, Magwe, and Minbu. The association also has a subcommittee, founded by some former hospital administrators, that provides medical assistance for pregnant women. It was started on Apr 7, 2002, or World Health Day.

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