At India’s Funeral Pyres, Covid Sunders the Rites of Grief

Watching mourners in protective clothing or from home. Long waiting times on the cremation site. The trauma of loss has become both lonely and public.

NEW DELHI – The lifeless are picked up from infected houses by exhausted volunteers, stacked in ambulances by hospital workers or carried on the backs of auto rickshaws by grieving relatives.

At the cremation site, where the fires only cool off briefly late in the evening, the relatives wait for hours until it is their turn to say goodbye. The scenes are photographed, filmed and broadcast. They are being transferred to relatives across India who are locked down. Featured on news sites and in newspapers around the world, they depict India’s personal tragedies to a global audience.

Local residents are recording the fires from their rooftops to show the world why they have to wear masks in their homes. The smoke and smell of death is so constant, so thick, that it covers the narrow streets for much of the day and seeps through shutters.

The flames testify to the devastation caused by the Covid-19 crisis in India. They show the casualties in a country where it is widely believed that the dead and infected are severely undercounted. You are a reprimand to a government that is being accused of mismanagement by many of its people.

Beyond the pictures, the cremation grounds carry a painful trauma routine that will burden families long after the headlines fade. The pandemic has robbed the last rites of their usual space and dignity.

Instead, this intimate ritual has become both a public event with the world watching the crisis in India and a solitary burden. Traditionally, relatives gathered to share their grief. Now, fear of infection keeps most loved ones away – or in some cases all of them.

“I couldn’t even show my family members those final moments,” said Mittain Panani, a 46-year-old businessman. He and his brother were the only participants in his father’s cremation in Mumbai last week. His mother stayed in the hospital with her own infection.

“You could have it all: money, power, influence,” he said. “Still, you couldn’t do anything. It felt gross. “

The virus has spread so quickly that India sometimes registers more than 400,000 new cases a day that no corner of the country is left untouched. However, the devastation in New Delhi was particularly severe. According to official figures, more than 300 people were killed every day, which is probably not enough.

“I used to get six to eight bodies a day before the pandemic,” said Jitender Singh Shunty, the founder of a volunteer organization that operates the Seemapuri cremation site in east New Delhi, last week. “Now I get about 100 bodies to cremate every day.”

Through his organization, Shaheed Bhagat Singh Sewa Dal, the former businessman has been offering free or discounted cremations for the poor for 25 years. As demand has increased, Mr. Shunty’s full-time team is struggling. It added dozens of new pyrene in the adjacent field.

During the day, Mr. Shunty helps move corpses and arrange cremations by changing his protective clothing, masks and gloves dozens of times. At night he sleeps in his car – his own wife and two sons are sick at home. Three drivers are infected with the virus. His manager is in intensive care.

“But there are about 16 of us left and we work day and night,” he said. “It’s 8:30 am. I’ve already received 22 calls to pick up bodies.”

Hindu tradition prescribes cremation as the preferred method of disposal for the dead. In a belief that focuses on the liberation of the soul, cremation breaks the bond with the physical body. After death, the eldest son usually leads a procession of close male relatives who carry the body to the pyre. A Hindu priest or pundit leads the final prayers before the fire is lit. Ashes are scattered in the Ganges or some other sacred river, and mourners gather at home to remember and perform prayer rituals.

Families are instructed to collect the ashes immediately to avoid confusion. Unclaimed ashes, said Mr Shunty, are kept for up to two months and then poured into the Ganges.

“Flames are rising from pyrene, people wearing PPE and everyone covered in plastic – it felt like the end of the world,” said Dimple Kharbanda, a film producer who flew to New Delhi from Mumbai last week to arrange the final rites for her father. Dharamvir Kharbanda.

Mr Kharbanda, a retired businessman, hadn’t had Covid-19 but his rites were tainted by the pandemic. His daughter asked relatives, including her father’s sister in a neighboring state, not to come to Delhi because of the risk of infection.

“Those private moments when you want to privately say goodbye to loved ones are denied,” she said. “Death has become a spectacle.”

Sister Poonam Sikri watched the funeral on a family video call.

“When someone dies in India, we gather and talk about him, his life, his habits, the good things about him. We couldn’t even do that, ”Ms. Sikri said of her brother. “As I watched his cremation on the phone, I felt that part of my body was removed. I wanted to stroke his head and rub his face and hug him one last time. I couldn’t do that. “

For families of Covid-19 victims, the cremation site can be the final stop in a harrowing ordeal after dragging their sick from hospital to hospital in search of a bed after queuing for oxygen for hours.

Before Darwan Singh’s body arrived in Seemapuri – the sign his family was given indicated he was number 41 in line – the family had done everything they could to save the 56-year-old security guard.

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His fever had persisted. Its oxygen levels had dropped to a dangerous 42 percent. For two days, the family could not find a hospital bed or an oxygen bottle for him. When they found one, his nephew Kuldeep Rawat said, he was given oxygen for an hour before the hospital was empty.

The family brought Mr. Singh home for the night. The next day, they waited five hours in the parking lot of another hospital. The family paid a roughly $ 70 bribe to get his uncle a bed in a free government hospital, Rawat said. Mr. Singh died overnight.

Since Seemapuri was fully booked, the hospital was unable to hand over the body immediately. On April 25, it was piled on an ambulance with five others and taken there.

Mr Rawat said he had to go to the ambulance to identify his uncle and then take him to the crematorium, where they waited five hours before his turn at the stake. The cost: $ 25 for materials needed for the final prayer, $ 34 for wood, $ 14 for fees for the pundit, and $ 5 for the family member PSA kit.

Mr Rawat said his uncle’s family – mother, wife, daughter, son – were infected. Relatives could not come to the house to mourn and offered condolences over the phone.

“And I’m still isolated,” said Mr. Rawat, fearing that he had been infected during the last rites.

For families living near the crematoria, there is no escaping the constant memory of death as they wait for what feels like their own inevitable infection.

In Sunlight Colony, a mix of shanty houses and apartments where some houses share a wall of Seemapuri, the smoke is so constant that many are forced to wear masks inside. Children are given hot water to gargle before bed. The laundry is dried inside.

“Our kitchen is upstairs – it’s unbearable there,” said Waseem Qureishi, whose mother and six siblings live in a two-bedroom house that is still under construction next to Seemapuri. “If the wind goes towards our house, it’s worse.”

Anuj Bhansal, an ambulance driver who lives near the Ghazipur crematorium, also in east New Delhi, said he was concerned for his four children, ages 7-12.

Mr Bhansal said when the cremation reached up to 100 a day, the neighborhood kids would run to a nearby garbage heap and watch.

“When you look at the flames and smoke coming out of the cremation site, you ask why it doesn’t end,” said Bhansal. “You can hardly understand what is going on.”