A Kerala native, survived by his wife and daughter, was laid to rest by a Muslim, a Hindu and two others in Delhi’s Mangolpuri, as no male members of their family turned up for the funeral.

PPE wearing men buying a COVID-19 patient who died Image for representation only
news Coronavirus Saturday, June 13, 2020 - 21:04

In times of a pandemic, relationships and communities forged over a lifetime could possibly amount to nothing. The funeral of 65-year-old Joseph (name changed), a COVID-19 patient in Delhi, stands testimony to this grim reckoning. On Wednesday, Joseph’s wife and daughter had to lay him to rest at Delhi’s largest burial ground, the Budh Vihar Shamsan Ghat in Mangolpuri with the help of four strangers. Two of them, an auto driver and an ambulance driver who had known the family for just a few hours, when they dropped the deceased’s wife and daughter as well as his mortal remains, to the cemetery. 

With just a mask and gloves, Hussain carried the coffin from the ambulance to the grave, as no male members of the family turned up for the funeral. With the help of the ambulance driver Vinod, who could access a PPE kit, and two cemetery workers, the coffin was lowered to the ground at 7.30 pm.

“Seeing his wife and daughter’s desperation, I could not help but offer to assist in burying him. There was no family member other than the two of them at the funeral and if I had not done it, they would have been lost,” Hussain tells TNM. 

Joseph passed away at 5 am at the Lok Nayak Jai Prakash Narayan (LNJP) hospital in Delhi on Wednesday, where he spent a week in isolation. The news of his death reached his wife and daughter, who were observing their 10th day of home quarantine at around 9 am. This was when their travails began. 

“None of their relatives were prepared to claim the body at the hospital due to fear of the virus. Finally, the wife and daughter of the deceased got permission to break their quarantine and claim the body, as the hospital needed the presence of a blood relative to do so,” says a source close to the family.

The hospital agreed to arrange for a private ambulance driver to transport Joseph’s body to the cemetery, as all of their ambulances were reportedly busy. This, as the family had only a day's permission to step out of their house and complete the funeral. However, due to acute shortage of staff, the hospital could not send health workers to assist in the burial of the deceased. 

“They told us that Christian burials are so few. It was mostly Hindu and Muslim burials and since it was 5 pm by the time we claimed the body, the hospital was in acute shortage of staff to spare for just one burial. So they were made to sign an assurance form by the hospital staff, promising that the body would be directly taken to the cemetery," she adds. 

In order to offer a proper Christian funeral for the deceased, who hails from Kerala and belongs to the Orthodox church, Joseph’s family tried to contact their local priest. However, not only did the pastor decline to officiate the funeral, nobody from the community barring four of Joseph’s friends visited the burial ground. According to the Central government’s guidelines on COVID-19 burials, a maximum of 20 people are allowed to attend a funeral.

“The pastor said that he could write a letter confirming that Joseph belonged to the church and that he was entitled to a Christian burial. He also said that he wanted to live for some more time and therefore would not attend the funeral,” the source adds. They later found a Catholic priest from Punjab who was kind enough to hold the prayer servive before the burial, according to the daughter’s updates on social media. 

TNM reached out to the concerned pastor who said that the COVID-19 death was the first such experience in the parish. 

“We have not had such an incident so far here. We were neither experienced nor prepared to handle it, and we decided to refrain from going to the cemetery only because of the pandemic, as the deceased person too had tested positive. However, in the future the church will come up with rules on officiating protocol for COVID-19 deaths and we will look into the issue,” he said.

Following the incident, the Orthodox Delhi Diocese Metropolitan announced that a basic service should be offered during the burial of a Christian COVID-19 deceased, after taking into consideration the circumstances of the case and adhering to guidelines set by the governmentsand the local bodies. All of the priests of the diocese have been informed of the new guidelines on COVID-19 burial services. 

However, the whole experience has left the family shaken, and wondering whether they should be reevaluating their support systems, be it religious institutions, communities or social units — the ones that people turn to in times of crisis.

 “The church was an institution that we had put our faith into, that we looked up to for support during tough times. We are held accountable if we do not inform the church of the major happenings in our lives - be it births, deaths, weddings. Yet when this family experienced the most traumatic time of their lives, neither those who ran the institution, nor the wider community offered to help. Everybody washed their hands off. Such is the nature of a pandemic,” the source adds. 

What was left in their absence were strangers, who came together blurring religious differences, to see Joseph off the proper way.

“My father's coffin was laid to rest by Hindus and a Muslim man. Thanks to these people, he got a proper Christian burial,” his daughter wrote in her social media testimony.