‘Packages’ for last rites: COVID-19 deaths turn into a business in Hyderabad

Businesses related to handling dead bodies in Hyderabad are offering funeral packages for families who have lost people to COVID-19, often taking advantage of their helplessness to overcharge them.
A funeral pyre burns as two men in PPE kits unload a body from the back of a vehicle with the help of two other men
A funeral pyre burns as two men in PPE kits unload a body from the back of a vehicle with the help of two other men
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Seeing us enter Hyderabad’s Moosapet Hindu crematorium, Krishna, a private ambulance driver who was sitting inside the crematorium, quickly walked up to us to enquire when we planned to bring the body. He assumed we were there to find out the availability of a time slot for a cremation. To find out more, we persisted and asked for details. He said he offers packages for both COVID-19 bodies and non-COVID-19 bodies. This conversation happened in the second week of May.

“The package will include an ambulance to transport the body and pallbearers in PPE kits who will pick up the body from the hospital and lay it on the pyre. The firewood for the pyre will also be provided, and if the family doesn’t wish to light the pyre one of the pallbearers will do the formalities. If the customer wishes to collect the ashes, they can do so in three days; if they don’t wish to touch the ashes, an additional sum of Rs 1,500 would be charged for the cremation workers to collect the ashes. The ashes can be stored in a locker for an additional charge of Rs 500 per day until relatives come to pick it up for further formalities,” Krishna explained about the package.

After revealing that the package cost was Rs 42,000 for a COVID-19 body, Krishna says he can be contacted for any requirement related to bodies.

However, the rate fixed by the Greater Hyderabad Municipal Corporation (GHMC) for funerals at crematoriums is Rs 8,000 per COVID-19 body. It is to be noted that other states like Kerala and Karnataka offer free cremations for COVID-19 patients.

When we visited the Miyapur Hindu crematorium, the rates were similar there too. Shiv Kumar, a worker at the crematorium, quoted Rs 45,000 for a “complete package” for a COVID-19 body. When TNM enquired about the rate for non-COVID-19 bodies, he said, “You take my number and call me, we can discuss and fix a rate.”

“Even if a body arrives in the middle of the night, we’re available to do the final rites,” added 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.

Sai Teja is a Hyderabad-based activist who is part of Feed the Needy, a group run by 10 IT employees that has been providing free ambulance services for COVID-19 patients in the city. Speaking to TNM, Teja said, “The charges for renting a body freezer to store a COVID-19 body overnight is Rs 32,000. As we can’t afford to rent it often, we had to buy our own body freezers. Today, we have three ambulances and two body freezers, and we’ve ordered two more. We provide these services for free.”

According to Teja, the group has been getting several requests for their free service on a daily basis. “If a body is released in the evening, the families are left helpless. They can’t take the body home and mortuaries also don’t take the bodies. Most crematoriums don’t do the final rites after sunset. In that case, people have no option but to hire a freezer box to store the body. COVID-19 has turned death into a business,” he said. Hiring a freezer box only adds to the long list of expenses for families.

Taking note of the numerous complaints of overcharging at crematoriums, the GHMC zonal commissioners were recently directed to visit crematoriums and enquire about the charges being collected. Banners have also been put up at crematoriums mentioning that Rs 8,000 is the maximum rate that can be collected for the final rites of a COVID-19 body.

Youth Welfare Telangana is a group that has been helping with the last rites for COVID-19 bodies in the state. Syed Jalaluddin Zafar, president of the group, told TNM, “Irrespective of religion, we’ve been carrying out the final rites of COVID-19 patients across the state. So far, we’ve carried out the final rites for around 1,900 patients across the state. All our services are free. Those who can afford it pay us voluntarily, we use the money for those who can’t afford to pay for the final rites.”

Jalaluddin also believes that death has become a business for many people. “In the last few weeks, we’ve come to know about 15-20 cases wherein middlemen are approaching families and collecting around Rs 25,000 from them and then calling our group for free service. They pocket the money while the work is carried out by us. We’re wary of such cases, but we don’t deny families our service, because middlemen may make money but the loss is the families’,” he shared.

According to Jalaluddin, now the rates for funerals across crematoriums as well as at Christian and Muslim burial grounds are around Rs 8,000 for a body. “This was not the case until recently. People who dig the grave, people who do the final wash of the body, the religious head who comes to say the prayers are all charging exorbitant rates. There was a case in the Shanthinagar graveyard around two months ago, where they collected Rs 1 lakh from a family for a place to bury their loved one,” he said.

To a large extent, the efforts taken by GHMC officials to regularise the funeral rates seem to have worked. “We were coming across so many complaints of overcharging and exploitation, but thankfully they have reduced drastically in the last few days,” said Teja.

While there are several NGOs, groups, and people like Sai Teja and Jalaluddin who are going out of their way to offer free services, for several others COVID-19 has become an opportunity to make a quick buck. While the pandemic may have ruined most businesses, it has clearly brought fortunes for many.

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