On April 14, 30-year-old Rahman* woke up to the devastating news that his father was no more. Sixty-two-year-old Abdullah*, a contractor and affluent resident of Parrys in Chennai, had died due to complications from COVID-19. But the family had no time to grieve.
With his father and sister-in-law having tested positive at the end of March, the other members in this joint family were all forced to remain quarantined by the city's civic body. This meant that there was nobody to conduct the last rites for the deceased man.
"Since he got admitted we had seen our father exactly twice on video call when the doctor treating him in Apollo Vanagaram connected us," says Rahman, his voice heavy with emotion. "We thought the most painful part was not being able to see him in the hospital. But his death made us realise that we could not leave the house to do the final rites for him. We were devastated," he adds.
The hospital had called the family and also informed the Chennai Corporation but Abdullah's family wanted to ensure that the last respects were done correctly for the patriarch. who had worked so hard to provide them the comfort they enjoyed today.
"That is when we approached the Social Democratic Party of India (SDPI) members for help," says Rahman. "Their volunteers had been active during the 2016 floods and acquaintances said they could help. We contacted them and they readily agreed. We told them what rituals had to be done and they collected the body from the hospital and took it to the kabristan to be buried. They made sure we could see what was happening through a video call. It was heartbreaking to say goodbye like this but we indebted to them for their help," he adds.
For SDPI, this was the first COVID-19 death that they handled in the state and since then requests have been flooding their members' phones throughout the state. But they didn't completely dive into burial work of COVID-19 bodies till two horrific incidents came to light.
"The first was how the burial of Dr Simon Hercules was stopped in Chennai and the second was instances from Puducherry of bodies being thrown unceremoniously into graves, " says AK Kareem, the state coordinator of SDPI. "Dignity in death is necessary for every human. So since then, we have tied up with the Chennai city Corporation and six district administrations in the state - Madurai, Nellai, Tenkasi, Villupuram, Erode and Pondicherry to help in burial of bodies. So far we have buried close to 150 people who have died due to COVID-19," he adds.
Several other organisations in the state too have started this yeoman service in the wake of COVID-19 deaths and are doing it free of cost. Amongst them is the Uravugal Trust in Chennai and Tamil Nadu Muslim Munnetra Kazhagam (TMMK) which functions across the state. They carry out these services with the permission of local bodies, who ensure that they are given the necessary safety gear and instructions. Hospitals, local police, corporation officials and families contact the volunteers for help. In most cases a sanitary officer is also present when the body is being buried.
When TNM spoke to the Chennai Corporation, a senior official confirmed that utmost caution was taken to ensure that volunteers are well protected and that COVID-19 tests were conducted periodically on those involved in the burial process.
"There is no question of religion in this service," says Badusha, a TMMK member who helps families conduct last rites of departed persons in Thanjavur district. "A week ago we helped with a burial of a Hindu doctor in Kumbakonam. She was an elderly gynaecologist who has helped over 2000 women deliver children in Thanjavur and the surrounding districts. She died at a private hospital and the family contacted us for help. They told us exactly what they wanted to be done and gave us objects to be cremated with her. We did as asked. We have buried 130 COVID-19 positive patients so far," he adds.
According to these volunteers there are four reasons why their services are crucial during this pandemic. The first and predominant being that families are terrified of being infected.
"Several medical bodies and experts clearly say that you can't get infected by a dead person. But the fear and stigma around the diseases causes families to seek us out. So we handle the body and do what is necessary. It is horrible for us to see a son, daughter or spouse wailing in grief from outside a crematorium or cemetery. They want to come in but they can't. They don't even get to say a final goodbye because of this virus," says Kareems.
The second reason is the cost they have to bear for the services.
"When patients are admitted, especially in private hospitals, the families have already spent a lot of money on treatment," points out Badhusha. "We have 180 ambulances functioning across the state that we allow them to use for free. Our services are free as well. So they don't have to worry about additional expenditure," he adds.
The third is that the volunteers know the process of burial correctly and also ensure that the family's wishes regarding the last rites are followed.
Khaalid Ahamed who started the Uravugal Trust in 2017 to ensure safe and dignified burial of unclaimed bodies in the city, says, "We pour salt, lizol and other materials into the grave before lowering the body. The lowering itself requires technique because COVID-19 bodies are buried at 12 feet and not the regular six feet. You need people in the know of this to carry out burials."
Kareem further explains that it gives solace to families to bury their loved ones with certain items that are nostalgic or to have prayers read out during the final rites.
"Based on the religion of the person, we have someone read out from their scriptures and texts and ensure that the family is satisfied," he explains. "Corporation workers wouldn't be able to do this. For them it's just another body they need to bury. But for a family this process gives closure. We cannot ignore the final rites for a human being," he adds.
And finally, the last reason, as Rahman's case highlighted, is when family members are in quarantine.
"To have a loved one die suddenly is a big shock to the system. But to be unable to say goodbye or even to see them for the last time, that is a tragedy nobody should face," says Rahman. "What was the point of all our wealth, when we can't see a family member for the last time before he is buried? "
(*Names changed to protect identity)