For Sri Lanka grave digger, a grim parade

Ammu KANNAMPILLY
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Piyasri Gunasena digs a grave at Madampitiya cemetery in Sri Lanka's capital Colombo -- he usually only digs one a day but since the Easter Sunday attacks, he is far busier

Piyasri Gunasena digs a grave at Madampitiya cemetery in Sri Lanka's capital Colombo -- he usually only digs one a day but since the Easter Sunday attacks, he is far busier (AFP Photo/LAKRUWAN WANNIARACHCHI)

Piyasri Gunasena rarely digs more than one grave a day at the Madampitiya cemetery in Sri Lanka's capital. On Tuesday, two days after the deadly Easter bomb attacks, he had dug 10 by mid-afternoon.

"This has been the busiest time -- even during the war, it wasn't so busy -- only the odd funeral for a soldier," he said, referring to the country's bloody and decades-long Tamil insurgency.

On an average day at the Colombo cemetery, Gunasena cuts the grass, checks the condition of the graves, and if needed, digs a fresh burial site.

But after Islamists carried out a string of attacks on Sunday that killed more than 320 people, the coffins have not stopped coming.

"Police have not released all the remains yet but I think we will be busy for a while," he said as he dug his tenth grave of the day.

Gunasena has found it harrowing, despite his decades of experience.

Among the victims whose grave he dug Tuesday was an 11-month baby boy, and he said he had struggled to steady his hands as he worked.

"Every time I dig a grave for a child I think of my own granddaughter and I feel like crying," the 48-year-old told AFP, as sweat soaked his grimy t-shirt and tattered shorts.

- 'Haunting wailing' -

Attending the funerals breaks his heart, he said.

"When I see people weep, I feel very upset -- the sound of their wailing is haunting, it doesn't leave me."

A Buddhist who frequents temples and churches, Gunasena said he prays regularly "to clear my mind".

"In the last two days though I have been praying more than usual -- several times a day -- begging God not to allow such a thing to happen again."

The lush and usually peaceful cemetery has seen a steady stream of mourners arriving to bury loved ones since the blasts ripped through hotels and churches where members of the country's Christian minority were marking Easter.

On Tuesday afternoon, hundreds of people were gathered to say goodbye to the young Gomez family.

The entire family -- 33-year-old Berlington Joseph Gomez, his wife and their three little boys, aged nine, six and less than a year old -- were killed in the attack on Colombo's St Anthony's Shrine.

As a group of priests led the prayer service, family members wept and the crowd sang Christian hymns, before gently lowering the coffins -- including the tiny one holding the remains of baby Avon -- into the ground.

- 'We are all connected' -

Berlington Gomez's father struggled to hold back tears as he recounted plans for his grandchild Avon's first birthday, which would have fallen on 5th May.

"We were planning to baptise him on that day," he told AFP.

Priests sprinkled holy water on the coffins and then half a dozen men, including Gunasena, worked furiously under the blazing sun to pile soil into the graves.

His job over, he watched from the sidelines as Berlington Gomez's father and other relatives placed flowers on top of each mound, before the crowd joined them in lighting incense and candles.

The candles never burn for very long, Gunasena said, because the evening breeze usually extinguishes them.

So before he leaves work, he goes to each new grave and lights them again.

"It's my way of respecting the dead, of caring for them, of supporting the families," he said.

"We are all connected. We are all humans first before we are Christian, Buddhist or anything else."