Death is a lonely thing, even for those left behind.
Three years ago, around midnight, digital marketing executive Annkur Pandey discovered just how lonely. His father died, suddenly, from a cancer that had been showing signs of remission.
Pandey's family had moved to Bengaluru five years earlier, from Chhattisgarh, and while he and his elder brother had settled in well and knew their way around the restaurants and nightspots, they had no idea who to turn to when it came to Hindu last-rites arrangements.
In the midst of their grief, the two men were forced to run from pillar to post searching for a pandit.
Three months later, in February 2013, Pandey, 36, launched punditjionline.com. He now sells antim sanskaar (last rites) as well as a host of other puja packages.
"I realised how difficult it was when you are new in a city that day. Realising the need for pandits for all kinds of pujas in the market, I decided this e-commerce initiative will benefit all," he says.
Many others have had the same thought.
Over the past two years, there has been a spate of new online last-rites services. Some offer to arrange for live webcasts of funerals or cremations, for relatives or loved ones who cannot make it.
Others act as puja e-marts, selling antim sanskaar packages that take care of all arrangements at the click of a cursor.
Still others offer last-rites tour packages that help you plan trips to holy places to scatter ashes, helping with travel and last-rite arrangements.
Even pandits in Hindu pilgrimage spots such as Varanasi, Haridwar, Sidhpur and Gaya are offering last-rites related services online, via websites such as kashimokasha.com, gayapahunchao.com and matrugaya.com.
While the first such services were launched five years ago, catering mainly to NRIs, their number has multiplied over the past two years, as they have found a growing number of takers among urban Indians.
Two factors are leading to this growing demand - a large number of people moving around within the country, settling in unfamiliar cities; and the break-up of the erstwhile joint family into smaller and more disparate units.
"The concept of a family pandit doesn't exist in the cities anymore. A particular pandit is no more attached to a particular family for generations, meeting all of their religious needs - because those practices are on the wane. And it is uncommon now for a person to be born, live their entire life and die in the same place," says sociologist Sarla Bijapurkar.
Thus, when tragedy strikes, those left behind are turning for assistance - as they do with so much else - to the internet.
The stories of those who use these services are a mix of the moving and the macabre.
"Some people just courier ashes of the departed to holy spots such as Varanasi or Kashi and then stop taking our calls. Still others say they don't need to know the details, they just want a WhatsApp video of the immersion to share," says Sumit Srivastava, who offers antim sanskaar for the economically challenged through the website asthivisarjan.org.
Others, however, are finding precious comfort in the assistance that such services offer. And it's not just youngsters using the services.
Mumbaiite Dinesh Garg, 60, for instance, used gayapahunchao.com to plan a trip to the Hindu pilgrimage spot of Gaya in Bihar to pray for his deceased father. He found out about the website through a listings service.
"There are always people stalking potential clients on railway platforms there. Making the arrangements beforehand meant that I was secure and I could focus on the purpose of my trip," he says.
Many of the websites' founders, in fact, have been inspired by unpleasant experiences of their own.
"I started the portal last year after watching a friend's mother struggle to arrange for the last rites for her husband," says Saumya Vardhan, of shubhpuja.com, who now plans to expand into last-rites travel packages too. "In a time of grief, I wanted to offer a service that would guarantee timely and stress-free rituals at a fixed rate, accessible with utmost convenience."
Anthropologist VK Srivastava of Delhi University says we ought not to be surprised at the evolution. "The idea of death itself has undergone a makeover," he adds. "Many of us go to work, leave for a cremation and head back to work after. Since, it is a part of our everyday lives, it is instantaneously a part of the market structures. Entrepreneurs give an offer of surety, guaranteeing favourable outcomes. The organisation of last rites is becoming more professional and there's no harm in that."
Reacting to the idea of people putting on headphones, watching videos of cremations and funerals in their own time zone at their own convenience Bijapurkar says, "Such online services are a result of the lack of time and mindspace in our fast-paced lives. Caught up in career and personal progress, which people increasingly use interchangeably, social relationships are taking a backseat. There is less and less time even for immediate family," she says.
"Social media, meanwhile, has made even death something to be posted and 'shared' as we continue to seek validation. online."
SCATTERING ASHES, VIA THE WEB
Chennai-based R Rajamohan Sethupathy, 43, a deputy manager, began to fret over the task of scattering her mother's ashes, who died on July 1, in the four auspicious sites of Devipattinam, Kumbakonam and Rameshwaram in Tamil Nadu, and Varanasi in Uttar Pradesh within a fortnight.
He found the solution while browsing online - a website called pitramoksha.com, set up by 37-year-old pandit Anurag Dwivedi in June 2013. Sethupathy spoke to Dwivedi, who offered to conduct all the special pujas for a fixed fee. "He sent the asthi (remains) to us by courier and we sent him video and pictures of the rituals," says Dwivedi.
"The fact that my wish was fulfilled and a noble effort was made by the people behind Pitramoksha.com left me satisfied," Sethupathy says. "I have shared the images with friends, family and colleagues. Looking back, I would say the whole experience is unbelievable. It feels surreal, but it saved me the time and money I would have otherwise had to spend on the flights and trips. I would recommend this to all."
A FUNERAL WITH 200 VIEWERS
Mathew Chacko, 54, from Kerala has used an online funeral webcasting service twice - last year, for his mother's funeral, and earlier this month, after the death of a cousin.
With 200 relatives scattered across the US, Qatar, Dubai, Mumbai, Delhi, Bengaluru and Hyderabad, he says it just made sense. "Live programming is quite common in Kerala, because so many relatives are abroad," he says. Eventually, because it was held online, all 200 relatives were able to view the last rites via funeral webcasting service Keralaeventsonline.com, Chacko adds.
"Today, it is understood that everyone can't make it to a funeral, keeping in mind time and geography constraints," says founder Sooraj VS, 30.
ADD TO CART
There are websites where you can now add the 'antim sanskaar package' to your shopping cart. Shubhpujapaath.com, for instance, was launched in December 2014 by Delhi-based Sudha Mishra, 23, originally from Varanasi.
A Commerce graduate with a diploma in website design, Mishra wanted to offer grieving people a transparent means of booking a reliable pujari.
This website came to the rescue of 26-year-old CCTV technician Suraj Jaiswal when his grandfather died in March. Unable to get more than a day off from work, he heard about the online service options from friends and decided to book a package.
"When one is already mentally and emotionally harassed, it is hard to take care of all the rites. Though my father was worried, after I bought the package and everyone saw the puja, they were astounded that the internet can make such a difficult time a little easier," he says.
LAST-RITES TRAVEL PACKAGES
In March this year, at the behest of his maternal uncle, 24-year-old Manoj Sharma of Bikaner, Rajasthan, typed the words, 'Pitrudaan in Gaya' to try and figure out how to perform this last-rites puja for his father all the way in Bihar.
A handful of websites popped up, offering to take care of the arrangements for him. After making a few calls, Sharma picked gayapahunchao.com.
"I liked the founder, Rahul V Chotia's, explanation of the rituals and his option of customised travel packages providing end-to-end services, right from boarding the train, to transport to the hotel, and pundits who would explain each detail during the puja," he says.
Mumbai-based Chotia, 30, says he set up the website after he was hoodwinked in Gaya while trying to perform a ritual for his grandfather.
For Sharma, the best part of the package was that there were no surprises. Even the bill amounted to exactly what was advertised on the website. "I feel relieved and thankful that something of this nature exists," he says.