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With travel curbs keeping families away, funeral organisers step in to perform last rites

With the death toll from Covid-19 remaining above 300 for the past five days amid the continuing surge in cases, and in view of the restrictions on travel imposed by several countries, many families are unable to perform the last rites of their loved ones, and are instead relying on funeral organisers in the national capital to ensure that their dear ones get a decent farewell
By Fareeha Iftikhar, New Delhi
PUBLISHED ON APR 27, 2021 12:46 AM IST

With the death toll from Covid-19 remaining above 300 for the past five days amid the continuing surge in cases, and in view of the restrictions on travel imposed by several countries, many families are unable to perform the last rites of their loved ones, and are instead relying on funeral organisers in the national capital to ensure that their dear ones get a decent farewell.

The funeral service providers are not just assisting families in making the arrangements, but in most cases, are also performing the rituals in the absence of family members.

The second wave of Covid-19 pandemic across the county -- and the fourth wave in Delhi -- has turned out to be the deadliest one yet with over 25,000 people testing positive for the virus daily and nearly 300 persons dying every day over the past few days.

On Sunday, Delhi recorded 350 deaths, while on Saturday it was 357, and on Friday, 348. The average number of Covid-19-related deaths, according to the state health bulletin, in the past week was 304.

Given the grave situation, the US Centre for Disease Control and Prevention has issued a non-binding advisory asking people to not go to India even if they are fully vaccinated. Apart from the US, the UK, Singapore and New Zealand have also imposed fresh restrictions on travellers from India or issued advisories against travelling to India following the massive spike in Covid-19 cases. Gulf countries Oman, Kuwait, the UAE and Iran, as well as Canada, have imposed restrictions on passengers arriving from India and will allow only citizens to enter.

Several funeral organisers across the city said there has been a surge in the number of requests they are getting for services from people residing abroad or currently stuck in other cities. Officials at Messy funerals, a service provider in Civil Lines, said their phone has been ringing off the hook the past week.

Vineeta Messy, the owner of the company, said they have recently completed the last rituals of two elderly persons, aged 76 and 82, who had succumbed to the virus at their home in Indirapuram, Ghaziabad. “Their children are in the US and could not come to India. We got a call from them and when we reached their home, only the domestic help was there with the bodies. We collected the bodies and performed the funeral rituals. We also live streamed the ceremony to the children. There have been so many such requests recently,” she said.

“It is difficult to console the family members of a deceased when they are not being able to see the departed one last time,” Messy said.

Funeral organisers are offering packages -- ranging from 5,000 to 20,000 -- which cover services such as organising a hearse van to pick up the body, and arranging materials for the rituals and priests, and finding a crematorium or burial ground where the finals rites will take place. Some of them also provide free service to families who cannot afford the packages.

According to several funeral service providers, the number of requests for their services has increased manifold, particularly from foreign clients, in the past two weeks. The requests are coming from the US, the UK, Canada, and even the UAE, organisers said.

“Earlier we used to get hardly 50 calls a week for any sort of assistance. But these days, we are getting around 300 calls a day seeking help. We don’t have the resources to cater to all requests. We wish we had more ambulances and staff to serve everyone,” said Daljit Singh of Antim Yatra.

The funeral service providers are also getting frequent calls from Covid-19 positive families who cannot participate in the final journey of their loved ones. Cyril Joseph, the owner of the JCJ Funerals in Kalkaji Extension, said they recently performed the funeral of a Covid patient from CR Park whose entire family was also Covid positive. “It was heartbreaking that they could not accompany their father on his last journey. We collected the body and performed the last rites, while live streaming the ceremony to the family. The next day, we also had to pick up the ashes and hand it over to the family,” he said.

Antim Yatra, a funeral company in Jantar Mantar Road, will also immerse the ashes of a Covid-19 victim on behalf of a family on Tuesday. “Father of two elderly persons died of Covid and both children also have Covid. We finished the last rites of their father and on Tuesday, we will immerse the ashes by ourselves. This is not a lone case --- there are several such families who are helpless to do anything,” said Singh.

For such helpless families, there is no closure. Akshit Sharma, 25, who works with a multimedia company in Pune and is presently Covid positive, had to rope in a funeral service to cremate his aunt who succumbed to the virus in Delhi. “My aunt, 58, always lived alone in Delhi. She never got married or had children. We were like her own kids. It feels devastating that we could not see her for the last time or be there for her last rituals since my family is also Covid positive at present. My father is in a bad shape after losing his sister. We have requested a local temple to keep her ashes till we are able to immerse them,” he said.

Officials at several burial grounds and crematoriums also said they have performed several such “lonely” last journeys. Mohammad Shamim, the supervisor of Delhi’s biggest burial ground at ITO, said, “There have been several cases when none was there to even help us put the body in the grave. It feels really bad seeing people die such lonely deaths.”

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