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For funerals in the time of Covid, strangers step in to help in final journey

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Among the hundreds of calls he has attended ever since he began handling coordination efforts of the volunteer-led Mercy Angels, Mohammed Ismail remembers one woman in particular. “She told me, ‘My father died yesterday, there is no one to take his body from the hospital. I will fall at your feet, but please do his
antim samskara (last rites)’. She was crying inconsolably.” The woman was the only child of the man, a victim of Covid19, but she was in institutional quarantine and hence, helpless.

At any other time, it seems unimaginable that a daughter should be unable to be with her father, on his final journey. But among the many painful truths the last few months have shown us is the fact that a death in the time of the pandemic, particularly when it is due to Covid19, can be the loneliest of affairs. Family members and friends stay away, because they are in quarantine or simply from the sheer terror of contagion.

Across cities, strangers have stepped in to take their place, part of volunteer-led efforts to ensure a dignified final journey, at no cost to the families. They pick up the bodies, transport them in an ambulance and assist in the cremation or burial, in accordance with the protocol laid down by the government.

Some of these efforts stemmed from a determination to avoid the experience of other countries during the peak of the pandemic there. Seeing the visuals of mass cremations in Italy and New York, doctors Taha Mateen and Mehdi Kaleem of HBS Hospital in Bengaluru decided that they should do something to provide a more dignified last journey, which is how Mercy Angels came about. “When they approached the health commissioner, he was very happy that someone was coming forward to do this,” says Ismail, who juggles his job as a software engineer, with coordination duties. Others were launched as community efforts but were soon extended to anyone in need. Irfan Shaikh, joint president of Raza Academy in Mumbai, says he along with Shoaib Khatib, president of Juma Masjid of Bombay Trust and developer Sabir Nirban, had started out to resolve burial issues for Muslims due to Covid at the end of March. But in a little over two weeks, they realised that in other communities, too, there were multiple instances of nobody coming forward to claim bodies and perform the last rites. “So we stepped in,” says Shaikh. In close to four months, they have assisted over 600 funerals across communities in Mumbai. In Hyderabad, Srinivas Bellam says his motivation to launch “Last Ride” ambulance service at the end of June was his seeing his friend struggle to get an ambulance after he lost his mother to Covid19. “The rest of the family was in quarantine. They finally ended up paying around Rs 45,000 to a private ambulance and the crematorium,” says Bellam, who works in facility management, and has roped in 10 volunteers and hired two others as well as an ambulance driver to help.

Though the volunteers’ efforts are focused on helping with the last rites, they often find themselves doing a lot more, like liaising with hospitals and helping get the death certificates because the families are often too distraught and helpless. “People often don’t know what to do or who to turn to, so they end up calling us,” says Ismail.

Some of the volunteers, who have had experience helping with the last rites of unclaimed bodies before Covid, say they are able to take the current situation in their stride. “Since 2017, we have helped conduct around 950 funerals,” says Khaalid Ahamed, founder of Uravugal Trust in Chennai, who breaks off to ask someone in Tamil, “Body
varilaya? (“Hasn’t the body come”). The conversation is taking place as Ahamed is waiting to help with two burials. “I have been dealing with death, so I am not worried,” says the 25-year-old. When asked about whether he fears contracting the infection he says he makes sure everyone takes strict precautions, from donning PPE suits to being allowed to participate only after oxygen levels are measured and found to be satisfactory.

But for most it is a difficult job, one that can drain you mentally. “This week, I had to help with the cremation of a couple. Consoling the children, speaking to them, was very hard,” says Bellam. For Mohammed Azmat, a volunteer with Mercy Mission, it was carrying the body of a gentleman with children the same age as his own which he found most painful. “His wife was pleading with us to open the bag so she could see her husband one last time. But we couldn’t because of safety protocols,” says Azmat. “When they are weeping in front of you, it becomes very hard to refuse.” (In Covid deaths, one cannot open the body bag once it has been sealed at the hospital). In Mumbai, when they had to help with 10-15 deaths a day at the peak, Shaikh says he became overwhelmed. “There was so much panic, so much fear — I couldn’t take it anymore. I had to quarantine myself for a week.” Even today, he is unable to sleep peacefully at night.

It can also be physically challenging. At times, the volunteers themselves have had to dig graves of 10 to 12 feet when cemetery workers refused to help. Then there is the difficulty of carrying a body through crowded cemeteries, which Azmat says he finds difficult despite being a record-holder in power lifting. With cases and deaths rising in Bengaluru, a grim new challenge has been the long queues at cremation and burial grounds. “It’s hard to describe how difficult it is when you have to wait in a PPE suit for six hours,” he says.

Shaikh is thankful that he and other volunteers now have to attend only about one call a day with daily cases reducing in Mumbai, but those in cities like Bengaluru and Hyderabad, which are seeing a spike, are bracing themselves for a longer haul.

But wherever they are based, the volunteers give the same reason for coming forward to help total strangers: because someone has to.

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