‘Bodies just keep coming’: Hyderabad crematorium workers struggle to keep up

According to official records, 2,803 people have lost their lives due to COVID-19 in Telangana, but crematorium staff say the numbers are much higher.
Two funeral pyres seen burning as a staff member walks by with a bucket in his hand
Two funeral pyres seen burning as a staff member walks by with a bucket in his hand
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At the far corner of the ESI Hindu crematorium in Hyderabad, the staff pile firewood for a pyre. A body enclosed in a bag is mounted on the pyre, which is then lit by a man in his 60s. As the fire catches on and the flames spread, the inconsolable cries of the dead man’s young wife, who is standing at a distance, grow louder.

“My life is now worthless,” she says, gasping for breath as she breaks down inconsolably. Two elder women hug the grieving woman, trying hard to console her even as they themselves break into tears.

Around 8 pyres are burning at this point in time. The crematorium also has an electric furnace, but this is largely used to cremate bodies that no one has claimed. Families gathered in small groups bid goodbye to their loved ones. During the first wave of COVID-19, the fear of contracting the virus had made even families stay away. But in the second wave, many are coming to the crematoriums, dressed in PPEs, to bid adieu.

‘Relatives now coming forward to light pyre’

Speaking to TNM, Devender, the supervisor of the cremation ground, said, “The visible change between the first wave last year and the second wave now is that the farewells were unceremonious last year, with some unknown people lighting the pyre. But now, relatives are coming forward to do it. We allow five relatives to be present near the pyre.”

No religious formalities are allowed during the cremation of COVID-19 patients. The bodies, packed as per COVID-19 protocol, arrive in ambulances and are laid down on a platform by workers dressed in PPE kits. The family member who is to light the pyre also has to wear a PPE kit. Four other members can witness the cremation from a distance. They are soon asked to leave because more families are waiting for their turn.

Inside the crematorium, large heaps of firewood can be seen that are replenished on a daily basis. The ESI crematorium has two different parts, one where bodies of people who died a natural death are cremated and the other exclusively for COVID-19 bodies.

‘No time to even sit’

Though Devender was unwilling to show the official record of the number of bodies the crematorium has been receiving, he did disclose the numbers orally. “In the last two days (May 9 & 10), we’ve had around 25 bodies each. The day before yesterday (May 8), we didn’t even have time to sit. We had around 50 bodies.”

The ESI Hindu crematorium has around 18 staff members who work in shifts.

“Though it’s evening, I haven’t had time to eat a single meal today. I’ve been surviving on chai and cigarettes since early this morning,” said Shiv Kumar, pointing at his pack of cigarettes. Kumar is the in-charge of the Miyapur Hindu crematorium.

“Even if a body arrives in the middle of the night, we’re available to do the final rites,” says Kumar, a B Com dropout whose family has been conducting funerals for three generations now. According to Hindu customs, the last rites are usually performed only between sunrise and sunset. But the pandemic has changed this traditional practice.

Undercounting in deaths

Amjed Ullah Khan, spokesperson for the Majlis Bachao Tehreek (MBT), alleges there is gross underreporting of COVID-19 deaths by the state.

“As far as I know, for every 10 deaths only 1 is being reported. There are around 5-6 main graveyards where Muslim bodies are buried. Initially, COVID-19 bodies were being buried only at the Fakir Mullah graveyard. Now, they are being buried at all graveyards. In fact, there was a fatwa issued earlier that asked relatives not to bury COVID-19 bodies with the regular formalities. However, today for most deaths, they aren’t even officially declaring it as a COVID-19 death. In most cases, bodies are being brought to the mosques, in some cases to homes as well. No one is keeping track of the number of burials happening at Muslim graveyards,” Khan tells TNM.

At both the Hindu crematoriums too, the staff told TNM that the number of cremations have increased manifold. However, when TNM asked the person entering details in the register about the number of deaths recorded in the last few days, he said in English, “We have strict instructions from above. We can’t share any information. Please understand.”

“The numbers are disturbing even for us. Why should we scare others?” he added.

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