There is a saying in Myanmar that goes: "One funeral is as good as 10 trips to the temple."
Daw Wa Wa Khaing, 49, firmly believes this as she is the only woman hearse driver working for the Dewayanika Funeral Service Society, located in the crowded Maha Aung Myay gem trading centre of Mandalay.
Although people tend to avoid funerals, Daw Wa Wa Khaing is driving a hearse to prove she can keep up with the men. Neither is she squeamish about dressing a dead body.
"My husband died 10 years ago, after which I felt very depressed. I couldn't make a living with a 5-year-old child, and I felt like committing suicide. I had relied on my husband throughout my life. I joined this association one year after my husband died," she said.
Her husband was a doctor who had died of liver cancer. She had donated to the temple a lot when he was alive but she could no longer afford to donate because she had no savings. Their house was still under construction, and before it was completed, she rented one floor of the house for K60,000 a month for two years.
"I joined the association thinking I could make merit without spending any money. It was very hard for me to be able to afford to make a donation, so I felt relieved when I became a member. I don’t have to worry about my son as I own my house. Now I feel prepared, because I will also have to go this way one day," she said.
She wasn't allowed to drive a hearse immediately after becoming a member but had to study for a year before she was allowed behind the wheel.
"Officials of the association sat beside me in the car and approved me after they saw that I could drive without a problem. The first job I had was driving the hearse at night at South Inn and North Inn Cemetery. I had to be careful to uphold the association’s image and to please the family members of the deceased. We cannot make any mistakes with the hearse. We have to check the roads. Also, some wards are superstitious about funeral processions," she said.
The team has 15 female members. Daw Wa Wa Khaing drives the hearse. She felt revulsion for one or two months after joining, but now she bathes, applies make-up and carries the body into the mortuary, which is never a pleasant task.
"Even though I am a driver, I can't avoid handling the bodies. Some cannot be moved even with eight people, and is it worse if they are smelly. But everyone has to help, as the body cannot be dropped. Now I even enjoy the tea leaf salad at the cemetery and bananas placed on top of the hearse," she said.
Those helping on the hearse sometimes have strange experiences like emergency sirens wailing or horns honking by themselves at midnight without explanation.
Society member U Tin Tun said, "One time we were passing through Mandalay Dagontine roundabout, transporting the body of a girl who died in an accident at Aungpan. When we left her village, I felt what seemed to be a bug crawling on my body and then an unbearable sting like something had bit my hand."
Daw Wa Wa Khine had a similar experience. "One time, we had to go get the bodies of a family that were killed in a highway accident. The lady was really pretty when I saw her in a picture, but her face had been horribly mangled in the accident. At the entrance of Taung Inn Mrauk Inn Cemetery, where the cremation would be, the two of us in the front of the car felt something on our legs. We immediately recited a “Pahtan” prayer and promised to take good care of her body."
Every time the hearses leave the association, it is a custom to call upon the deities to bear witness to the charitable acts the members perform, and then food is offered, she said.
People are only allowed to donate goods or services to the funeral society. In the past, the use of a golden hearse cost K50,000, but later the service was made free so that anyone could use it, she said.
None of the members of the association are paid. Although she has to do everything at her own expense, she will continue providing the service as long as her health permits, she said.
"Life is very short. I'm not going to worry about it, as I have developed a passion for this job. I really like the idea, as monks say in their sermons, that humble things are only done by noble people. I will help new members while working for the association because merit shouldn’t be enjoyed alone," Daw Wa Wa Khaing said. – Translated