Aubrey, a third generation Raymond, tells Kumudini Hettiarachchi
how his carpenter ancestor carved an 'undertaking' niche in Lankan life
The showroom on the up-per floor is spick and span. The quality timber
of the products on show is polished to a sheen. Even the wooden floor is
of teak, very old and valuable. The other accessories of the business are
stored in rooms or neatly stacked. Candle stands here, a metal cross there.
"This has been our family business for four generations now," says Aubrey
Raymond, with a touch of pride. The "family business" saw its beginnings
even before 1885 in a tiny carpenter's workshop down what is now D.S. Senanayake
Mawatha, Borella. The business, so close to many Colombo residents'
final resting place, Kanatte, is undertaking — now developed into the fine
art of funeral directing.
It all started with Arthur Francis Raymond, descendant of a Swiss mercenary
soldier who came to then Ceylon in the 1700s, going about his legitimate
business of carpentry in Borella. "We have traced our ancestry to a Swiss
town on the French border. The first Raymonds to come to Ceylon were three
mercenaries brought by the Dutch to fight the British. One was killed at
Kelaniya, one went to Trincomalee and one settled down in Colombo," says
Aubrey, a third generation Raymond, pointing out the coat of arms hung
in the main lobby of the office.
Arthur Francis, or AF was a descendant of the one who settled in Colombo.
He was a joiner and carpenter in those days when elaborate funerals were
not the norm and the only law connected with dying was that the dead person
should be buried in a wooden box.
How this carpenter turned into an undertaker is a fascinating story
ending at Kanatte.
"Those days the asylum for the mentally ill and the infectious diseases
hospital were in the place where now stand the BMICH and SLBC. Kanatte
was about 200 yards away. My grandfather is believed to have been given
a contract to make the coffins, collect the bodies and bury the people
who died at the asylum or the hospital. No one would touch those with infectious
diseases and relatives couldn't have cared less about mad people," says
Aubrey, Managing Director of A.F. Raymonds.
Of course, there are no records of the very early days. In 1885, however,
enterprising AF formed a company and established a zinc-roofed shed with
a carpentry workshop at the rear.
They were the first "organised" undertakers in the country, Aubrey explains
thumbing through meticulously kept funeral registers, some so old that
they crumble in one's hand.
In 1927, the zinc-roofed shed was developed into a bigger building and
stands even today, with modifications and additions as the A.F. Raymond
They have records of a "pre-arranged" funeral, where someone paid for
services for her own death in 1928 when the coffin was a mere Rs. 60, the
hearse charges were Rs. 20, shroud cost Rs. 10, "dressing remains" Rs.
5 and the grave fee was Rs. 3. The bill amounted to Rs. 98. Now, 73 years
later, inflation has caught up with this industry, too, and the costs could
reach up to several lakhs of rupees.
AF had six children, five boys and a girl, and in 1910, after his death,
a trust was formed because the children were minors. Later when they were
able to take over the business AF's sole proprietorship evolved into a
partnership of the six children.
Aubrey, 62, does not have any memories of his grandfather, for he was
not even born when the old man died. But a storehouse of memories and anecdotes
have been passed down to him by his father, Sydney, the second son of AF.
The late 1800s and early 1900s were the days before motor cars and the
funeral procession consisted of a horse-drawn carriage for the coffin,
followed by mourners on foot.
For Sydney and his brothers, death, funerals, embalming and coffins
were part of their daily lives, for their home too was on the premises
where their father ran his business.
Those were also the days of horse racing and foreign circuses touring
the country and, for Sydney and his siblings, schoolboy pranks and laughter.
AF didn't own horses but hired them from Moosajees and G.N.J. Wallace,
who stabled race horses and also a few hacks left behind by circuses.
Oft-times, during a solemn funeral procession, the horse-drawn carriage
bearing the coffin would go round and round the roundabout near Kanatte,
without heading for the graveyard.
Had a spirit got into the horse or a ghost taken over? "If anyone clapped,
the horse would instinctively get into action, as earlier trained in the
circus, and prance in circles to the applause from the crowd. And boys
being boys, Sydney and his brothers had hidden near the roundabout and
clapped, leaving the mourners bewildered at the strange behaviour of the
horse and the coffin," chuckles Aubrey.
The second Raymond generation, except Aubrey's father, once they grew
up took to the business seriously. Sydney went a different way working
for three years as a tea-taster at Brooke Bonds, before giving in to the
lure of family bonds.
"It was run like any other business, efficiently and properly, even
in those early days. I believe the Raymonds also have many firsts to their
credit. My uncle, Leslie Lionel, accompanied the body of an Englishman,
one Mr. Crowe, who had died in Sri Lanka, to England on the P&O Liner
'Baradine' on February 2, 1935. In England, he qualified in embalming and
came back home in 1936, to be the first qualified embalmer in the whole
of the East," says Aubrey. This sounded the death knell to the crude embalming
techniques used so far such as cutting open the body, stuffing it with
sawdust and cotton wool soaked in formalin and stitching it up again.
From then on, in the interests of the industry, a Raymond has always
qualified as an embalmer. Now they depend on the expertise of Aubrey's
nephew Keith and son, Shannon.
Another first for A.F. Raymonds was the switch from horses to a motorised
hearse in 1928. Custom-built on a Studebaker chassis, a Kissel hearse was
imported from America. They were also the first to import a special motorised
ambulance to the country in 1939 to enable patients to be taken to hospital.
"To name a few more firsts, we were the first to open funeral parlours
in the country in 1951, first to export handcrafted caskets to England,
first to exhibit caskets in America and Canada. I think there is no other
firm in Sri Lanka now run by a direct descendant of the founder," he says.
As in most family businesses, the split came in the third generation,
when Aubrey's cousin Barney, returned from England after qualifying as
an embalmer and opened an independent company in 1953. In 1972, A.F. Raymonds
became a limited liability company taking in all the Raymond cousins except
those involved in Barney's business, says Aubrey.
Now A.F. Raymonds handle around 70 to 80 funerals a month, and have
conducted the last rites for many a celebrity. They have faced many challenges
over the years including the construction of a specially designed ransivige
and a 66-foot pyre resembling the Sathmahal Prasadaya for Ven. Welivitiye
Sorata, then Vice Chancellor of the Vidyodaya University, on the campus
in Gangodawila on July 25, 1963.
While providing a silent and efficient service, the Raymonds have seen
much of life and also death. Their worklist includes attending to the victims
of the two major aircrashes — at the Seven Virgins mountains and Kimbulapitiya
— in Sri Lanka, and the exhumation of Mrs. Mathew Peiris' body during the
trial of Rev. Mathew Peiris.
For Aubrey, poignant moments and the question "Why?" come to mind when
he arranges the funerals of young children or teenagers. There are no answers.
"I too died three times and was revived. I wonder why. Maybe to write
up the long and chequered history of Raymonds," he himself answers.
Is there no fear or apprehension in dealing with the dead? Counter questions
Aubrey, "What is the only certainty, when a person is born?" Sitting in
the upper-storey conference hall of A.F. Raymonds, overlooking the lush
and still Kanatte, I have to concede that it is death. "So what is there
to be fearful of the only thing we are sure of in life," he says with dead