The coronavirus pandemic has taken a major toll on the heartfelt rituals of cremation as families, apprehensive of contracting the fatal virus, abandoned their relatives and refused to touch their bodies in several instances. The cremation of these fallen souls is performed by dedicated workers at various crematoriums who risk their safety for the “last departure”.
Amid a political storm in Madhya Pradesh, Bhopal had recorded the first Covid-19 case on March 22 when a Law student was tested positive days after returning from the UK. The city reported its first coronavirus death on April 6 after a 52-year-old man, who worked as a watchman at a wholesale market, succumbed to the infection.
By then, a severe sense of trepidation had taken over the minds of the local residents in the city.
Satish Dholpure (39) recalled how bodies landed up at the crematorium with two or three people and his team performed the last rites as, in most cases, the ones accompanying the dead were apprehensive of infection. Dholpure has been working at the Chhola Vishramghat in Old city since his teenage years.
“Though we only accepted bodies in cases of normal death, but no one knew who is infected and who isn’t,” he said, adding that his father, Shivcharan, served at the Vishramghat for years with whom he had handled influx of deadbodies during the 1992 riots in Bhopal as a teenager.
As a boy, I feared dead bodies, but my father always offered me the courage to deal with the corpses, he said.
At times, when the kin were unable to bring the bodies to the crematorium, Dholpure and his team travelled to their homes with the necessary items used in last rites and brought the bodies on pushcarts.
The Vishramghat Samiti, too, has offered free “gau kasth” (wooden planks made out of cowdung) to those who could not afford it for cremation, added the young worker. All the articles used in last rites at nominal prices in the hour of crisis as shops selling them were also were shut during the lockdown, he said.
“After last rites, some families used to offer me hefty amounts but I never accepted it as it was all done with a sense of service and humanity,” Dholpure said.
Hemant Ajmera, the in-charge of the crematorium affirmed that Dholpure, his brother Sachin and others offered exemplary services during the lockdown period.
Forty-nine-old Pradeep Kanojia worked tirelessly for months performing the last rites at Bhadbhada crematorium and missed his elder daughter’s wedding for carrying out his duties.
“We must have cremated hundreds of bodies post March this year,” said Kanojia, who has four contractual workers and the team survive on crematorium committee’s grant and “dakshina” offered by the kin of the deceased’s families.
“I hardly got any government support for this and had to borrow Rs 30,000 for my daughter’s wedding. I slept inside the crematorium, around funeral pyres, to keep my family safe,” said Kanojia.
“I am happy that I could serve several families. All I want is two square meals a day for my family,” said the middle-aged man, engaged in the service for the last three decades, adding that he was a snake catcher and faced fatal bites on seven occasions.
His family has no qualms for his “hazardous work”. “My family lives with snakes I catch so they fear nothing,” he said.
Kanojia and Dholpure were the recipients of Corona Warriors Award that was recently conferred by a volunteer organisation, Green Bhopal-Clean Bhopal.
Meanwhile, Golu Neel performed the last rites of hundreds of bodies, including those of Covid19 patients, in last few months, with his cousins – Akash and Yogesh – at Subhash Nagar crematorium.
“Barring a few who helped us, mostly the kin did not wish to touch the bodies and watched from a safe distance,” said Neel. He and his cousins lived in separate rooms away from their family for three during the lockdown months.
It was the same crematorium where a senior citizen was cremated in the initial phase of Covid-19 pandemic in the presence of hundreds, who had later tested positive for the virus. A panicked administration had traced and tested large numbers of locals to assess any possible infection. “We were also tested but by the grace of god, none of us contracted the disease. We used to get tested every fortnight,” Neel said.
We always helped the poor families with free wood and other essentials, said the young man claiming that cremation work is his family’s profession since his grandfather’s time. “My father had witnessed deaths in such a large scale during the 1984 Bhopal gas tragedy when thousands had died within hours after a gas leak from the Union Carbide Corporation fertiliser plant. It’s only about service and helping out distressed families in the hour of crisis,” he said.
All of the workers News18 spoke to said that the arrival of dead bodies had surged to 15-20 a day during initial months of the outbreak. Of late, the number of bodies has dropped to normal, they said, adding that none of them has contracted the infection.
Bhopal on Saturday recorded 234 fresh cases, taking the toll of overall cases of infection to 19,572 while the district has 1968 active cases. So far, the capital city has recorded 423 deaths.