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State funeral seen as high honor for Mother Teresa

September 8, 1997

CALCUTTA, India (AP) _ Mother Teresa might have preferred simple rites to the pomp of the state funeral being planned, but a friend and Roman Catholic Church officials said today she deserves India’s highest honor.

``Mother was such a simple person. But if the government wants to do this, she would not have refused,″ said Sunita Kumar, a longtime friend of the Nobel Peace Prize laureate.

Prime Minister I.K. Gujral, who compared Mother Teresa to Mohandas Gandhi, one of India’s most revered figures, ordered the state funeral this weekend, after the 87-year-old nun died of a heart attack Friday.

She died at the headquarters of the Missionaries of Charity, a white-painted complex on the edge of a Calcutta slum where she had lived. Her body was moved early Sunday to St. Thomas Church in a white ambulance, escorted by a police officer on motorcycle, as church bells pealed and anguished wails rose from mourners.

For the funeral on Saturday, her flag-draped body will be carried on a gun carriage from St. Thomas Church to the Netaji Indoor Stadium, where a funeral Mass will be celebrated.

Father Anthony Rodricks, an aide to Calcutta Archbishop Henry D’Souza, acknowledged there have been some objections to the military trappings of the funeral.

``People might think of war when they see a gun carriage, but this is not the way it should be taken,″ Rodricks said. ``A state funeral is the highest honor the state government can give Mother, and that is the spirit in which the ceremony should be taken.″

Rodricks said Cardinal D. Simon Lourdusamy, the papal delegate, will lead the funeral Mass. He said Archbishop D’Souza may join the cardinal.

More than 20 cardinals and bishops from all over the world will join in the service. Indian President K.R. Narayanan and other dignitaries will also speak at the 1 1/2-hour-long Mass.

First lady Hillary Rodham Clinton will lead the U.S. delegation to the funeral.

The burial at Missionaries of Charity will not be open to outsiders.

``The public and press cannot attend the burial ... it will be a private affair,″ said the Rev. Francis Gomez, vicar of the archdiocese of Calcutta.

About 10,000 mourners lined up this afternoon to pay their respects to Mother Teresa at St. Thomas Church, according to police.

``We thank people for coming here to see Mother. I’m sure Mother is looking over us and she will bless us,″ said Sistern Nirmala, who took over as head of the order earlier this year.

Volunteers handed out flowers and glasses of water to the mourners, who waited in line for about 45 minutes to catch a glimpse of the body. Schools in Calcutta were closed and schoolchildren in uniforms lined up in the road leading to the church. About 90 children from The Assembly of God church school sang hymns when prayers began this morning.

``She cared for poor people like me and was never worried about letting us touch her or go near her,″ said Upajan Das, a street vendor who was selling posters of Mother Teresa.

But not everyone praised the nun.

``Calcutta has little reason to be grateful,″ columnist Sunanda K. Datta-Ray wrote in the Calcutta newspaper, The Telegraph. ``It was she who owed a tremendous debt to Calcutta. No other city in the world would tamely offer up its poor and its dying to be stepping stones in a relentless ascent to sainthood.″

But the words were a rare drop of criticism in an overwhelming outpouring of gratitude and adulation that swept the streets of Calcutta and the pages of local newspapers in the aftermath of Mother Teresa’s death.

Many mourners said they would attend Saturday’s funeral. Netaji stadium seats about 12,000, with standing room for several thousand more, said Sujit Poddar, a former state government official.

Mother Teresa, who said she saw God in every suffering human being, began her charity work with just a few helpers in this eastern Indian city five decades ago.

Her order now has more than 4,000 nuns and runs 517 orphanages, homes for the poor, AIDS hospices and other charity centers around the world.

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