Funeral homes struggle to keep up with rising deaths

Published on Apr 17, 2021 04:31 AM IST

The most deaths in Delhi before this were reported on November 18 last year, when 131 died of the infection.

Funeral pyres at Nigambodh Ghat in New Delhi on Friday(PTI)
Funeral pyres at Nigambodh Ghat in New Delhi on Friday(PTI)
By, , , Hindustan Times, New Delhi

The surge in Covid-19 cases in the Capital has not only burdened the city’s medical infrastructure and health care workers but also stretched thin Delhi’s crematoriums and burial grounds, which are now struggling to dispose of bodies with limited resources and staff.

On Friday, Delhi reported 141 deaths, the city’s highest single-day fatality count since the pandemic began.

The most deaths before this were reported on November 18 last year, when 131 died of the infection. The city has reported 597 fatalities from the infection in the last seven days, compared to 174 deaths in all of February and March.

“On Thursday, we received 12 dead bodies, while there were two more from the previous day. Of these, eight were sent for cremation, but they refused one body. After we intervened personally, the crematorium agreed to take the body but said it would take time. There were six dead bodies with us and three more came on Friday morning. Out of the nine bodies, four were handed over to the families while the remaining five are still at the hospital,” said a doctor from the All India Institute of Medical Sciences (AIIMS) during a review by Union health minister Dr Harsh Vardhan.

Another doctor from AIIMS recounted that in one hospital, 17 out of the 20 beds in a ward are lying vacant as three bodies are waiting to be disposed of and no patient can be admitted in the ward before the bodies are disposed.

The doctor also requested that the crematorium in Green Park be allowed to take bodies of Covid-19 patients to ease the situation. The bodies of the Covid-19 patients are handed over to the families in a leak-proof plastic bag that is sanitised with 1% hypochlorite solution to ensure the infection does not spread.

The AIIMS has also instituted a mechanism for relatives to identify the dead and give a written undertaking on whether they want to take the bodies for funeral themselves or let the hospital do it. This comes after there was a mix-up last year where the body of a Muslim patient was cremated before the family realised the error.

At Lok Nayak hospital, a mortuary technician said 40 dead bodies were sent for disposal on Thursday. “Sometimes, there is a delay in getting a Covid-19 test report or finding a mode of transport. The crematoria do not accept bodies after 6pm, as a result of which they have to be kept in the mortuary. However, the bodies are disposed of in the morning within a couple of hours.”

The problem of transportation and adequate staff to pack the bodies delayed the process of handing over bodies at Rajeev Gandhi Superspeciality Hospital. “There are just a couple of people who handle the dead bodies and take them to the crematorium or burial ground. Sometimes, there is a delay because the ambulance allocated for carrying the dead body is already at the disposal site,” said a doctor from the hospital on the condition of anonymity.

Six hospitals are attached with the Nigambodh Ghat--one of the biggest crematoriums in the city for Covid-related funerals. Suman Gupta, the general secretary of Badi Panchayat Vaishya Beese Agarwal organisation that manages the city’s main crematorium at the ghat, said around 120 bodies were cremated on Thursday, which is the highest number of cremations so far this year. “From zero Covid-related cremations on April 1, the number of cremations has now reached to around 50 per day,” said Gupta.

Around 38 of the 120 platforms in the crematorium have been set aside for people who have died of Covid-19, said Gupta adding that they can cremate maximum 135 bodies per day. “If the number of fatalities rises, we may have to figure out a way to increase the number of cremations using the existing resources,” he said adding that around 70 workers do a 12-hour shift to keep the crematorium running.

Officials at the Seemapuri crematorium, which is attached to Guru Teg Bahadur Hospital and Rajiv Gandhi Super Speciality Hospital, said they have also witnessed an increase in the number of cremations. Hemant Sharma, a priest at the crematorium, said sometimes, staff have to work 14-hour shifts because of the huge pile up of bodies.

“The workers come at 5am and start putting the wood on the pyre so that people don’t have to wait. From two to three bodies, we are now cremating around 35 bodies per day. Earlier, we would take time but now, we have to ensure that the cremation is wrapped in less than 30 minutes so that there is no backlog. The number of bodies arriving here for cremation is more than what we saw in November,” said Sharma.

Burial grounds across the city are being plagued with similar problems. With more bodies arriving at the burial ground, officials of the ITO graveyard--one of the largest burial grounds in Delhi--have brought in earth movers to dig several graves. “It has become impossible to dig graves manually. We were getting around 9-12 bodies during the third wave of the virus around October- November. The numbers have increased now,” said Mohammad Shamim, supervisor at the ITO burial ground.

Meanwhile, authorities at the three civic bodies said that there were 21 facilities (crematoria and graveyards) where funerals of Covid-19 patients (confirmed and suspected both) were being carried. The facilities can collectively dispose around 400 bodies per day, said civic officials.

Jai Prakash, mayor of North Delhi Municipal Corporation, said so far, there are enough resources at the cremation and burial grounds to dispose of the bodies of Covid-19 patients.

“At Nigambodh Ghat, that shares the maximum load of dead bodies in the city, we have increased the number of platforms for cremation through wooden pyre from 104 to 120. Similarly, we have also inaugurated three more CNG furnaces there, bringing the total number to six. We have also written to the Delhi government to make arrangements for alternative burial sites, in case the graveyards outrun their capacity,” said Prakash.

Leader of the house in South Delhi Municipal Corporation , Narendra Chawla, said there are eight facilities dedicated to Covid-19 related funerals.

“We have a capacity to conduct around 200 funerals per day. Wooden pyre platforms have been increased at cremation grounds, including at the Punjabi Bagh. In February, we inaugurated a CNG crematorium in Green Park that can be used for cremating Covid-19 patients if and when the need arises,” he said.

A senior official of the East Delhi Municipal Corporation said there are three cremation grounds and two graveyards in the jurisdiction of east corporation. The cumulative capacity of these facilities is above 40 per day. “ As of now, we are receiving only 20-30 bodies per day,” said the official.


    Anonna Dutt is a health reporter at Hindustan Times. She reports on Delhi government’s health policies, hospitals in Delhi, and health-related feature stories.


    Kainat Sarfaraz covers education for Hindustan Times in Delhi. She also takes keen interest in reading and writing on the intersections of gender and other identities.

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