The taboo of working at a crematorium follows them back home every day.

Invisible heroes Meet the people who give the dead their last send off
Features Human Interest Tuesday, October 11, 2016 - 20:08

This story is part of TNM's 'Invisible Heroes' series. The series aims to give voice to the people who perform some of the most thankless jobs in our society.

 

Thirty-four-year-old S Praveena Solomon asks her colleague Divya about the day’s schedule, as she enters her ground-floor office. The English graduate has the unlikeliest of jobs. She manages the Velengadu crematorium in Chennai, supervising the cremation and burial of dead bodies.  

It’s been two-and-a-half-years since Praveena, a resident of Anna Nagar, accepted the job at the crematorium. Apprehensive and filled with doubt, she remembers asking her family for their approval. “My husband and my parents agreed and allowed me to go ahead and do this job. But my mother-in-law denied me permission and kept telling me that there are ghosts at burial grounds,” she recollects.

Despite her mother-in-law’s fears, Praveena decided to take up the crematorium job.  The two-storey crematorium building is set in a 4.5acre burial ground. “In the beginning, it was scary. On Sundays the burial ground looks like an abandoned place,” she says.

Taking up the job not only meant facing up to her fears of death, but as a woman in a traditionally male role, there were other challenges she had to contend with. “People used to be rude and ask me, ‘why am I working here?’ Or say ‘Oh no, now women work here also’.”

Praveena says that the taboo of working at a crematorium follows her back home every day. People in her neighbourhood keep a distance from her.  “When I go back home, I need to be very careful that I do not touch any child on the streets or they will create an issue out of it. Only after I take a bath can I proceed to do anything. They are even hesitant to share any good news with me,” reflects the crematorium administrator.  

29-year-old Divya has a similar tale to tell, noting that the two women are often the object of ridicule in the community. “The people living in the locality make fun of us behind our backs. They will say look they work at crematorium and laugh,” says Divya, who has been working at the Velengadu crematorium for eight months.

With at least 50 cremations taking place in a week, Praveena and team work long hours at the crematorium. “We have to book slots for cremation for the day, we need to check the death certificates and all the data need to be sent to the Corporation office every day. Till the ash is given to the family members, we have to ensure that everything is happening properly at the burial ground,” explains Praveena.

The cremation task itself is carried out by 20-year-old Rajkumar and 25-year-old Manikandan. The two have been working at the Velengadu crematorium for several years now.  Having started out with a salary of Rs 2000, the two now earn Rs 6000 for their services.  

“The cremation process takes about one hour. At times the family members are rude and impatient but we ignore it,” says Rajkumar. The two young men say they stay behind until all the bodies are cremated.

Smoke fills the second-floor where the cremation has begun. Puffs of grey clouds make their way to the ground floor office where the staff are busy at work.

Despite society looking down on them, Manikandan calls his job at the crematorium a “blessing”, and adds, “If we do not do this work, who will?”

 

Read more: Invisible heroes: Bearing the stench to eke out a living, men who keep public toilets clean

Invisible heroes: What it's like to examine corpses and live with death each day

Invisible heroes: Food delivery boys and their hunger for a better life

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