The immediate problem facing the organizers of Mother Teresa’s funeral is keeping the church where she is lying in state cool enough to stop her body from decomposing right before the eyes of thousands who have come to pay their last respects.
In this subtropical climate, where bamboo trees thrive and the air is so humid it seems to weep, most people are cremated or buried within hours of death. A weeklong viewing, even for someone as venerated as Mother Teresa, is a definite risk.
So far six large, hastily installed air conditioners - combined with constant monitoring of the body and a cut in viewing hours - seem to be keeping temperatures reasonably low inside the little Catholic chapel where Mother Teresa’s body lies within a glass enclosure.
The state of the body is only one of many difficulties involved in putting together a fitting tribute to a woman many considered a living saint, whose life of service was as simple and pure as her funeral is complex and conflicted. Mother Teresa died Friday, at age 87, at home in her convent.
There is, for instance, the question of which foreign diplomats and leaders will attend. There’s the possibility of monsoon-flooded roads. There is the world press to feed and manage. Someone must decide who will get one of just 15,000 tickets to the funeral on Saturday.
To complicate matters, several jurisdictions have a hand in the arrangements. The military is ostensibly in charge because the Indian government decided Mother Teresa should be honored with a full state funeral. But her order, the Missionaries of Charity, decided she should be buried in its Mother House, rather than a cemetery. Calcutta’s police, the Vatican and leaders of the state of West Bengal also have representatives on the funeral committee.
“It’s fair to say we’re overwhelmed,” said William A. Canny, a Catholic Relief Services official serving as spokesman for the Missionaries of Charity. “But we’re overcoming the obstacles. We’re getting an awful lot of help.”
On top of all that, there is the specter of the majestic and elegant funeral last week for Diana, the Princess of Wales.
The unspoken pressure is twofold: First, that Mother Teresa’s funeral live up to her stature, in the way that Diana’s reflected her popular appeal. And second, that India - celebrating 50 years of independence from British rule - be seen as staging its funeral at least as well as its former colonial ruler did.
“We have our problems,” said Shuvobrata Ganguly, owner of a Calcutta advertising agency. “But still we are trying to present a cleaned-up, souped-up image of Calcutta to the dignitaries who are here.”
People here were impressed, Ganguly said, with the way the British mourned Diana. “People are talking about how orderly everybody was for Lady Diana, how quiet it was, how the people didn’t rush into the street and try and touch the car,” he said.
That, Ganguly suggested, might be one reason the long waits, as long as five hours, to view Mother Teresa’s body have been unusually sedate, by Indian standards. By Wednesday evening, about 350,000 people had waited in lines that double around a city block, to get into St. Thomas Catholic Church to pay their respects to a woman they call “Mother.”
Outside, the church is imposing, with an entry marked off by Corinthian columns. But inside, it is a modest 600 square feet, with painted plaster walls and a white and gray marble floor.
Mother Teresa’s body lies in the center of the chapel, on a bier draped with her signature blue-trimmed white saries. Her feet are bare. Her olive-wood rosary is entwined in her fingers.
The six air conditioners drone, the noise mixing with the sound of shuffling feet as mourners move briskly past the bier. The air, if not chilled, is at least less humid than outside the church. The sweet smell of freesias drifts lightly around the chapel.
Sisters from the Missionaries of Charity, dressed in their identical white and blue saries, sit on steps behind the bier. They softly chant the rosary or take a nearby microphone to lead a religious song, serving as a touching background for photographers.
The nuns move freely around Mother Teresa’s body to say goodbye. Many stop at her feet to pray. Several reach through ventilation slots to touch one of her gnarled feet - a traditional sign of respect in India. A senior nun positions herself nearby and firmly stops the reaching hands.
For the public, this is a no-nonsense, no-touch, no-pause viewing. Mourners are ushered in one door, pass the bier with just time enough for a quick glance toward the body.
A refrigerated shroud that will cover all but Mother Teresa’s head is expected to arrive later Thursday.
The service is expected to last about 2hours, including the Mass. Afterward, Mother Teresa will be taken back to the Mother House, where she will be buried in a vault dug into the ground floor.
MEMO: This sidebar appeared with the story: TV coverage Major TV networks are planning live coverage of Mother Teresa’s funeral early Saturday. ABC, CBS and NBC all are sending their nightly news anchors to Calcutta for the funeral, which is scheduled to begin at 12:30 a.m. EDT Saturday. The funeral will be shown on a tape-delayed basis at 12:30 a.m. PDT on the West Coast. Cable news networks will cover the funeral live.