Coronavirus Pandemic

India Covid Crisis: Bodies overwhelm the funeral industry Filed on May 2, 2021
A relative wearing a personal protective equipment suit looks on as an excavator covers the grave of his loved one, who died from Covid. Photo: AFP

Shortage of men and resources driving up cost of funerals.

In one of India’s national capital Delhi’s oldest graveyards, Imam Waseem stands exhausted in his personal protective equipment (PPE) overall, as he finishes funeral prayers for a Covid-19 victim. He has lost count of the dead he helped bury in the teeming and contagion-ravaged metropolis last week.

“I’ve not seen so many deaths ever in my life. Sometimes, there are 20 in a day. Sometimes, 30. I feel my heart is numbed,” Waseem, a cleric at the ITO graveyard, told Khaleej Times over the phone.

As a catastrophic second wave of coronavirus is ripping through India, hapless Covid-19 patients are dropping dead – at homes, in overcrowded hospitals, on three-wheelers and taxis with no access to life-saving oxygen or medicines.

While India is wheezing sick with a healthcare infrastructure collapsing under the overload of Covid-19 patients, giving the dead a decent burial is becoming a mounting challenge for an overwhelmed funeral industry.

India’s daily infections have crossed a global record of 400,000, and the death toll has touched 215,523. An acute shortage of life-saving oxygen in the world’s second-most populous country is claiming a life every minute. The grim statistics are evident in hospital morgues that are overflowing with corpses and families are having to wait for hours to cremate their loved ones.

Bodies are piling up

In Delhi, which is worst hit by the virulent virus, companies offering funeral service said they are working round the clock to meet the unprecedented demand.

“There is immense pressure. Phone calls from bereaved relatives are non-stop,” said Rishab Jalan, of The Last Journey, a funeral service provider based in south Delhi. He said more than 30 employees are working in three shifts to manage the telephone inquiries alone.

Daljit Sean Singh, who runs a funeral service called Antim Yatra in Delhi, said they are doing everything possible to help.

“We’ve to look after those who are alive. But it’s equally important to take care of the dead. As an industry, that responsibility is on us,” said Singh.

Delhi’s death toll is spiralling to epic proportions.

On Saturday (May 1), Delhi recorded 412 deaths, and each day is breaching a new record.

The burning pyres and smoldering ashes have lit up the capital’s night sky with a ghastly glow, as crematoriums have been operating non-stop, with new platforms added every minute.

Harrowing online images show mass burials being conducted to accommodate the dead. In some places, empty spaces and parking lots are being used for cremations.

Mohammed Shamim, the caretaker of the ITO graveyard, said the burial ground has run out of space.

“We can barely cope with the flow. The four acres of the graveyard is filled, and we’ve spilled on to the parking lot,” said Shamin, a third-generation caretaker at the graveyard.

The management extended the burial space for Covid-19 victims last year, when the pandemic started but that too has run out because of the fresh and a far more lethal surge of the viral scourge.

“We’ll need more land to bury the dead. Bereaved families are waiting for hours to get a slot for their loved ones,” he added.

Jitu, a worker at a makeshift crematorium in a car park, said the steady stream of bodies coming in is “terrifying”.

“There are multiple pyres burning at the same time. Delhi has become a living, and burning hell,” he added.

Acute shortage of ambulance, firewood

While the country’s hospitals are running dangerously low on essential medicines and oxygen, the funeral industry is faced with a different kind of shortage – of ambulances, refrigerated coffins, firewood, and Hindu priests to conduct the last rites.

“The biggest challenge is the shortage of ambulances in the city to carry the bodies to the crematoriums. Families are desperately calling us after waiting overnight. We have to get more ambulances,” said Basav Raj, of Vmedo funeral service in Bengaluru, Karnataka, which is reeling under the weight of Covid-19 deaths.

Karthik, another ambulance driver in the south Indian city, said he is working without a break. “My phone is ringing all day. Families are calling desperately, as they cannot find a space in hospital morgue or refrigerated coffins to keep the bodies,” he said.

If a person succumbs at night, families have to wait till the next day to arrange for h/her funeral. Even during the daytime, the wait extends to more than 10 hours as slots are unavailable at crematoriums.

“It takes three to four hours for a body to completely burn. And there is already a long line of vehicles outside, carrying bodies,” said Jalan.

According to him, many funeral companies are outsourcing work and also counting on vendors for firewood, which has become a scarce commodity.

Many service providers said the scarcity of wood needed for Hindu cremations is also becoming a “big problem”.

A coordinator at the Nigambodh Ghat, a Hindu crematorium, which carried out over 2,500 cremations in April, said supplies are running scarce, as firewood suppliers are unable to find supplies from other states that are dealing with Covid-19 deaths.

“Suppliers used to source out wood from Uttar Pradesh (UP) and Haryana. But due to a spike in demand in those states, they are unable to supply outside,” he said,

Media reports suggested East Delhi’s Municipal Corporation (EDMC) has issued orders to use cow dung cakes to reduce wood consumption. “Though we are arranging more firewood, use of cow dung cakes at Ghazipur and Seemapuri sites has been ordered,” the EDMC mayor Nirmal Jain was quoted in a local newspaper.

Many service providers say electric crematoriums are the answer to speed up burials.

“We’ve only three electric crematoriums in Delhi. Other states also have limited numbers. No one foresaw this,” said Singh.

Uptick in funeral costs

The shortage of men and resources are driving up the cost of funerals in various cities in India. Funeral companies said they are being charged double or triple by vendors and subcontractors due to an unprecedented surge in demand.

For instance, a cremation that costs Dh200 is priced at Dh500, or more.

Many companies said they are charging up to Dh1,750 for end-to-end service that includes transporting body from the hospital to the crematorium ground and performing last rites. Earlier, the same cost would be less than Dh1,000.

“The cost is similar in Delhi, Mumbai, Bengaluru and other cities,” said Jalan, whose company has branches in 10 cities across India.

K.J., a sub-contractor based in Bengaluru, told Khaleej Times the services offered by funeral companies have changed due to the raging viral outbreak, including transmitting funerals via video conferencing to grieving relatives, who are living abroad and unable to fly down.

“There are cases where all children are in the US or Canada, and a parent has died of Covid-19. In that case, we arrange the funeral and last rites after getting authorisation from the family and telecast the funeral through Voice over Internet Protocol (VoIP),” said KJ.

"Sometimes, family members who are in the same city or other cities are unable to attend due to safety concerns. People are forced to offer prayers and tears sitting in front of a computer," he added

Burying the dead is taking a health and emotional toll on people who work in the industry with many contracting SARS-CoV-2, which causes Covid-19, or mental exhaustion.

"One of our drivers has been working day and night. I cannot even begin to tell you how many people he helped. But unfortunately, he has contracted the infection like many people in our industry," said Singh.

But everyone is coming together while the country is facing a humongous challenge.

“We don’t consider this as a time when business is booming. These are unprecedented times. What we do is a service both to the dead and also to their families. There could be a shortage of oxygen and medicine. But in India, there is no shortage of good people who are coming together to help each other. We’ll never leave our dead on the streets,” he added.


Anjana Sankar

Anjana Sankar is a UAE-based journalist chasing global stories of conflict, migration and human rights. She has reported from the frontlines of the wars in Yemen and Syria and has extensively written on the refugee crisis in Bangladesh, Iraq and Europe. From interviewing Daesh militants to embedding with the UAE army in Yemen, and covering earthquakes, floods, terrorist attacks and elections, she has come out scathe-free from the most dangerous conflict zones of the world. Riding on over 14 years of experience, Anjana currently is an Assistant Editor with Khaleej Times and leads the reporting team. She often speaks about women empowerment on her Facebook page that has 40,000 plus followers.

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