Bhavana Chavada wore flowing red garments to her husband’s funeral instead of a traditional white sari, not yet ready to let him pass to the afterlife.
She sat in the front row of the service with friends and family Thursday morning and cried for Sanjay Patel, murdered earlier this month by armed robbers as he worked the cash register at a Citgo gas station’s convenience store in the Annex neighborhood.
More than a hundred people filled the Beecher & Bennett funeral home in Hamden to participate in a traditional Hindu ceremony that would help Patel attain moksha, considered the highest state of salvation. Men and women were separated, with women filling the central room behind Patel’s open casket and men in the wings on either side. Everyone wore simple white, flowing garments.
An outpouring of support from the Indian-American community in the Annex is helping Chavada through her grief. After six years of marriage, 48-year-old Chavada is six and a half months pregnant with their first child, a boy whom she plans to name Ohm.
After a microwave accident set their home on fire last year, she sustained burns to her arms and legs and cannot work. An online fundraiser has already gathered $22,652 of $50,000 for Chavada and Ohm.
When the time came for Chavada to say goodbye to her husband’s body, by placing a handful of flower petals over his chest, she did not want to go. It took the encouragement and physical presence of everyone in the first row to get her to stand up and walk the six feet to the casket. Sobbing so hard her body shook, she draped her body over her husband’s chest.
Only cremation will ensure a soul passes to its next destination, according to Hindu tradition. In India, a procession of family and friends carries the body on a stretcher to a four-way crossing in the road, and they carry out the ceremony there, said Mamta Patel, president of the Gujarati Association of Connecticut, which helped organize the service.
The priest Prakash Dave directed Sanjay’s brother Amit Patel through the religious rituals. Amit flew to New Haven from Australia when he found out his brother had been killed.
Before the ceremony, Dave laid down a white blanket and set out his materials: bundles of grass, six balls of rice flour dough, red flour petals, puffed rice, sandalwood paste, a sheet of aluminum foil, a few metal bowls, and pitchers of water.
Reciting mantras in between each step, Amit Patel placed each of the dough balls in a line across the foil. Dipping his right index finger into the orange paste, he dabbed a bright mark on the top of each mass. Continuing to recite after the priest, he placed a few blades of grass underneath each ball. He placed a rose petal on each, and then sprinkled puffed rice on top.
Amit placed the dough balls into the casket, at Sanjay’s head, at his sides, and on his stomach, to ensure his brother has sustenance when his soul passes, Mamta Patel said. He poured water over the body.
Groups of men and women in flowing white took turns grabbing handfuls of flower petals and placing them on Sanjay’s chest. The women recited prayers as the men lined up—asking that Sanjay be at peace.
Mayor Toni Harp and Police Chief Dean Esserman made two of the only speeches of the service, giving their condolences to Patel’s loved ones.
Esserman promised to bring the murderers to justice. One of the suspected robbers is being held in Bridgeport on $1 million bond on the murder charge. New Haven police are working on catching his alleged accomplice.
New Haven police patrol and motorcycle units escorted the cars to the crematorium after the service finished.