Burma - Special Adviser to the Manager, by Peter Jones (1975)

More than 20 years after Gerry Catling’s experience with the ‘Dear Departed’, I was to have an experience myself with the formalities of funeral arrangements in Burma.

I was on a temporary posting of three months. During our handover meeting, the outgoing manager mentioned to me that his secretary was in hospital with acute hypertension and was unlikely to survive. Sadly, after a couple of weeks, his prognostication proved correct, and Lily passed away. Among the more than 60 staff we then employed (one VC10 per week in each direction passed through Rangoon at that time, but local laws prevented us from reducing staff numbers) was a former chief accountant, who now bore the grand title of ‘Special Adviser to the Manager’. On this occasion I was grateful for his advice.

“Mr. Jones,” he said, “Lily’s family are Buddhist on one side and Catholic on the other, and things may get complicated as the arrangements will have to reflect both faiths. For one thing, the family are likely to want the male uniformed staff to act as pallbearers. I advise most strongly that you should be firm in refusing any such request. The average life expectancy in Burma is now between 50 and 55, and most of our male uniformed staff are in or near their 50s. In the heat, you know, with all the emotion of the occasion, and in their full uniforms… well, we wouldn’t want to lose any more staff, would we?”

This sounded eminently sensible, and I was happy to agree. But he wasn’t finished. “I am afraid you will have a function to perform at the funeral,” he said, and hesitated. “Well, what is it?” I asked. “You are probably not going to like this,” he said, “but the family will expect Lily to be ceremonially released from the service of BOAC. You, as manager, must do this in a loud and clear voice so that everybody can hear and be convinced. If you mumble or cannot be heard, the family will demand that monks be brought in to exorcise her soul, and that could be embarrassing for the company - and very expensive.”

So it was that on a hot and sunny day in Rangoon, I stood at the head of poor Lily’s open coffin, and declaimed, in my best Shakespearean tones: -
“I, Peter Jones, being the duly appointed representative of British Overseas Airways Corporation, do hereby release the soul of Lily Pwa from the service of British Overseas Airways Corporation, and she may now go where she pleases.” A heavy responsibility indeed.

I had occasion to use the services of the ‘special adviser’ again. During my stay, BOAC was formally joined to BEA (British European Airways) to form the basis of what is now British Airways, and the event was marked worldwide by various celebrations. In Burma it was to be a golf tournament. This was something I know about, and I set to work with a will to set up entry lists, organise prizes and think up various sub-competitions for long driving, nearest the pin, etc. Once again, my ‘special adviser’ was at my elbow. “I don’t believe we will need that level of organisation.” “Why ever not? There will be a lot of people wanting to play and it will be chaos if we don’t get them away in an orderly fashion.” “Trust me,” he said, “they will just want to turn up and play, and will be quite happy.”

He was right, and so was I. Nearly 300 players turned up throughout the day; organised themselves somehow into groups; some managed to play 18 holes but most only managed 9, but nobody seemed to mind, nor to keep score. The prime minister, several cabinet ministers and other government luminaries were among the field. We had prepared mountains of ka shwe, a Burmese chicken curry heavily flavoured with coconut, and had obtained a few precious bottles of gin and whisky through the British Embassy, and several dozen cases of imported beer. These were supplemented by a quantity of locally produced liquor, undrinkable to me but clearly not to Burmese golfers. After the golf, all the food and drink was rapidly hoovered up by those present, producing a gently soporific atmosphere among those who stayed for the distribution of prizes. Fortunately so, because we had no real idea of who had won what!

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