Munivenkata, a crematorium worker, says he has seen nothing like the crisis in the last month; waves of dead bodies to cremate, funerals without traditions and without loved ones around.

cremation in tavarekereCrematorium worker in Tavarekere, Bengaluru
news Coronavirus Wednesday, June 09, 2021 - 18:38

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Ranjith Kumar walks around the pyre, occasionally stoking the flames. The crackling of the fire fills the silence around him, broken only by the sobs of a middle-aged man — the victim’s son. Both are covered from head to toe in PPE kits. No words are exchanged. A few minutes later, Ranjith quietly ushers the man to step away from the pyres as another ambulance drives into the crematorium.“The bodies pile up and we cannot cremate them fast enough,” Ranjith says. “It weighs on you having so many bodies to take care of and seeing so many people losing someone they love.”

The 23-year-old is new to the job. In April, when the second wave of COVID-19 ravaged Bengaluru, he began working at an open-air crematorium in Tavarekere near Kengeri on the outskirts of the city. “I signed up along with my friends because I had no work when the lockdown was announced,” says Ranjith. 

He moved away from his home in Nelamangala in Bengaluru Rural district and stayed at the government hostel in Tavarekere where accommodation was arranged for those who worked at the crematorium alongside him. “It was not possible to keep my distance at home,” he says.  It has been over a month since Ranjith has seen his sister or parents, but he and his colleagues have been working tirelessly. Since April 25, they’ve cremated more than 1,600 COVID-19 victims.

For a week at the start of May, ambulances would line up outside the cremation ground in Tavarekere before Ranjith and his colleagues turned up for work at 6 am. The first job was to clean the pyres and set up the ‘beds’ — the metal structures that support the pyres. “After we clean up, we eat our tiffin and begin cremating the bodies one by one,” he says. 

At the height of the second wave, as people flooded emergency rooms in Bengaluru’s hospitals, the crematorium in Tavarekere was overflowing with dead bodies. The math was mind-numbing — on May 7, 84 dead bodies were cremated in Tavarekere, says Harish, another worker at the crematorium who manages the register and paperwork. 

He recalls being besieged with calls for pickups from hospitals and homes at a time they were struggling to cremate people quickly. “‘Please be patient’ — this is all I was telling people. We were trying to work as quickly as we could, but the capacity of this crematorium is 42 bodies. After 42 pyres were lit, the next person inevitably had to wait hours for his turn,” says Harish. 

Harish, a crematorium worker in Tavarekere, Bengaluru

The bodies were lined up on the pyres kept ready and they were lit in one go since it was difficult to work near the pyres when it was burning. This would go on for the rest of the day with the workers taking just two breaks, for lunch and dinner, at a makeshift canteen set up near the crematorium site. The workers were putting in 13- or 14-hour shifts which went well into the night. “On some nights, it was even till 1 or 2 am. We wanted to ensure that we left only after all the fires were doused,” says Ranjith.  

With more than 10,000 COVID-19-related deaths since April 11, Bengaluru was one of the worst affected cities in the second wave of the pandemic. There are 42 permanent crematoriums and 58 burial grounds in the city but they were quickly overwhelmed in the second wave, forcing the Bruhat Bengaluru Mahanagara Palike (BBMP) to open temporary open-air mass crematoriums like the one in Tavarekere. 

A report prepared by the All India Central Council of Trade Unions (AICCTU), after visiting 26 crematoriums and burial grounds in Bengaluru in May, highlighted how the profession was dictated by caste and that most cremation workers were Dalits. Some of them are contract workers with the BBMP who are paid minimum wages up to Rs 10,500 every month, but are denied benefits like risk allowance, social security and health benefits. 

Around 80 others, including Ranjith and Harish, who belong to Dalit communities, were called up to assist during the crisis in April.


‘A brotherhood among us’

Ranjith and Harish were friends even before they came together to work at the crematorium. In fact, most of the workers in Tavarekere are from the Ambedkar Dalit Sangharsha Samiti (ADSS) and have known each other for years. “Some of us are friends from college, some of us know each other through family. There is a real brotherhood among us,” says Ranjith, who has worked a number of odd jobs ever since finishing his class 12 exams. He worked as a data-entry operator with Flipkart in 2018, as a cashier at Mantri Mall, and also drove cars for VIPs. “Before the lockdown, we opened a flower decoration business. We would decorate anything — weddings, house-warming ceremonies, naming ceremonies. We would also play the thamte (drum) for some extra money,” he says. 

Ranjith had no experience of disposing of dead bodies before he was called into work. “I had been around dead bodies before but I had never worked in a crematorium. I needed the money and I knew I am not limited to one job or the other. I’ve lived my life trying my hand at different things and this was just one of them,” says Ranjith. 

He learnt the job from seniors like Munivenkata, 27, a third-generation crematorium worker who had been cremating the dead for years in Banashankari in Bengaluru. “We needed more people to join work because of the number of bodies that were turning up. We taught the boys to work in an organised manner. There were no specific roles for people because the same person cannot be working the pyres all day — he will be exhausted,” says Munivenkata. 

Ranjith Kumar, crematorium worker in Tavarekere, Bengaluru

Though he has been around death all his life, Munivenkata has seen nothing like the crisis in the last month; waves of dead bodies to cremate, funerals without traditions and without loved ones around. “Family after family came here asking for their bodies to be cremated first,” says Munivenkata. He admits mistakes were made — family members crowded around bodies, and sometimes fires didn’t light. On most days, confusion and exhaustion reigned.

This story is a part of the TNM COVID-19 reporting project. To support this project, make a payment here.

As much as the job is about taking care of the remains of the dead, the workers found that it is also about consoling the living — helping families cope with heartbreaking losses when nothing about the cremation process was as it would be in normal times. “Only two members of the family were allowed inside where the pyres were readied. They were wearing PPE kits just like us. They would get only a couple of minutes before the pyres were lit,” says Ranjith. 

Workers say that some families prefer to stay away from the cremation altogether due to the fear of contracting the virus. “I have been asked to place items like flowers and coconut on the pyre. Some even ask me to shoot videos and send them. I just did as I was told,” says Krishnamurthy KR, a crematorium worker in Kengeri. 

“We are often mistaken as stone-hearted because of the job we do. But I think we grieve in small ways for the loss of these lives, even if they are strangers. I know two minutes is not enough for closure but I hope the families understand some day there was no other way with so many bodies coming. We had to get to the next one.”

The workers made it a point to store the ashes of all the victims in little clay pots. “Some of the ashes were left unclaimed and they were immersed in the Cauvery River last week,” says Ranjith.

Frontline responders like doctors, nurses, and police officers have been recognised and hailed during the pandemic but even though crematorium workers fall in the same category, their work is hidden away from the public eye and rarely discussed. Working quietly, Ranjith and his colleagues have been watching the crisis unfold from up close — experiencing the grief of hundreds of deaths. 

They are yet to be paid for their efforts in the last six weeks although Suresh A, State General Secretary of the Ambedkar Dalit Sangharsha Samiti, says that the payments will be made to the workers soon by the government. In the last two weeks, the number of bodies coming to the crematorium have reduced to somewhere between five and 10 a day, Ranjith says. “We are no longer working long shifts and we are able to distribute the work,” he says. 

Yet there are days when Ranjith is travelling from his hostel to the crematorium and sees shops open and life continuing as though a pandemic had not left hundreds of people dead in the city. “It was a nightmare and it should never get to that point again,” he says.

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