Covid-19: Unclaimed ashes pile up at crematoriums
Twenty-two-year-old Rahul straps on his mask, pulls up his gloves, and gets ready with a scoop every evening to collect the remains of Covid-19 dead bodies that have turned to ashes at the Nigambodh Ghat crematorium, one of the largest funeral facilities in the city. He bags the ashes, and stores them in lockers on the cremation ground premises, waiting for families to come and collect the remains.
While the remains from each of the pyres are stored inside the facility’s lockers, there are some bags where the ashes and remains from different bodies are mixed together and stored separately.
Pointing at these abandoned bags kept on the side of the lockers, Rahul, who goes by one name said, “These are the ashes of people whose families have not come forward to collect them. Maybe they fear infection. We wait for a month, and then move the ashes into these sacks, because there isn’t enough space in the lockers considering the high number of deaths we are seeing these days because of Covid-19.”
Caretakers and volunteers at crematoriums across the Capital say that, since the second national wave of Covid-19 cases hit the city, several families of the infected dead chose to not come forward to collect their remains. They say that possible reasons could be fear of contracting the disease, or that the family members are already infected.
Suman Gupta, general secretary of the Nigambodh Ghat Sanchalan Samiti (coordination committee), the organisation that manages the crematorium for the North Delhi Municipal Corporation, said if the families of the dead do not come to collect the remains for one or two months, or if they remain unreachable, the ashes are kept aside. The coordination committee plans to take the ashes to Haridwar and immerse them on the behalf of the families.
“Our organisation has been doing this even before Covid-19 hit the country, for poor people who could not afford to conduct the last rites of their dead family members. But now, of course, the volume of the abandoned remains that we are getting is much higher. We believe that unless the last rites of the dead are not conducted, the soul doesn’t depart,” said Gupta.
In some cases, he said, the all immediate family members are either admitted to hospitals or are in home isolation, and are unable to perform the last rites of their dead relatives.
Delhi government data shows that over the last seven days, the city has recorded a total of 2,168 Covid deaths, of which 289 were recorded on Friday.
Surendra Rana, a resident of west Delhi’s Janakpuri, lost his brother to Covid-19 on April 26. At the time, his entire immediate family was infected, and only six friends and neighbours could attend the funeral.
“The situation was such that none of us could be there to set fire to his pyre, and it was only after 15 days that we could collect his remains from the crematorium,” Rana said.
Since the second wave hit the national capital, the crematoriums are lined with dead bodies waiting their turn. In the first week of May, when cases were at its peak, the waiting time at these facilities was anywhere between 16-36 hours. Many instances of good samaritans, including NGO volunteers, policemen and regular citizens helping with cremations of abandoned Covid infected bodies have been reported
Other cremation facilities said that they, too, were facing increased instances of abandoned remains lying with them.
Mukesh Singh, a caretaker at the Ghazipur cremation ground, said that while the crematorium does not provide storage facilities for the Covid infected bodies, there are NGOs and citizens’ group who step in.
“Most people prefer collecting the remains of their loved ones themselves, but where families don’t turn up, there are NGO volunteers who pick the remains, and then immerse them as per ritual,” Singh said.
Madhukar Trehan, chairperson of the Shiv Shakti Sangathan, a volunteer group helping collect the abandoned remains of Covid infected bodies at the Ghazipur and Mulla Colony crematoriums, said “Picking ashes is a very important part of the last rites of the dead. Every day our volunteers assist the crematorium staff in collecting the ashes of bodies, whose families have not turned up for them.”