On lonely last journey, dignity too abandons the Covid dead

Hospitals may have emerged as battlefields for critically ill patients to survive and recover, but a battle lost means a ticket denied for a ‘final journey’, over fear of the infection spreading.

Published: 02nd May 2021 05:31 AM  |   Last Updated: 02nd May 2021 05:31 AM   |  A+A-

For representational purposes

Express News Service

In his famous book, Tuesdays With Morrie, Mitch Albom quotes his old teacher and mentor Morris ‘Morrie’ S Schwartz: “Death ends a life, not a relationship.” It is because we value relationships that there is immense pain at the loss of a dear one. It is all the more painful when that dear one does not receive a dignified adieu a thing that has become rampant post death of Covid-19 patients. Hospitals may have emerged as battlefields for critically ill patients to survive and recover, but a battle lost means a ticket denied for a ‘final journey’, over fear of the infection spreading.

The latter has brought crematoria (mainly) and burial grounds under the scanner, begging for more to accommodate the rising number of Covid-19 dead. There is a debate in the background that burials are safer than cremations for Covid-19 victims. Family members are discouraged from attending funerals at electrical crematoria due to space constraints, but not so at open-air cremations, although guidelines restrict family members’ attendance to five.

This made a senior official from Bruhat Bengaluru Mahanagara Palike (BBMP) say: “It would be ideal if we could bury the Covid-19 deceased as it would be faster and economical too. There is no scientific evidence that buried Covid patients spread the virus. But due to religious sentiments, the government is now creating additional crematoria.” However, in several cases, hospitals are directly sending the dead wrapped in personal protection equipment (PPE) suits to be cremated.

Family members are asked not to attend cremations, and are not even informed where their departed family member will be cremated, or when. They are left with just memories, despair, frustration and deep grief.Long queues of the dead, many without family members in attendance, the unending wait, forced the government to add makeshift open-air crematoria to the existing ones to accommodate the rush. A total of 6,537 people have died so far in Bengaluru, which includes the 162 reported on Saturday -- the highest singleday fatalities. Karnataka overall reported 271 deaths.

There are 12 electric crematoria and 58 burial grounds in Bengaluru. Those handling the crematoria say unofficially, there are totally 108 crematoria and burial grounds, which the government has not maintained, and therefore, not accounted for. Of the 12 crematoria, seven are exclusively used for the Covid-19 dead. But since the rush there too with many walk-in cremations the state government announced the creation of makeshift non-electric crematoria at Tavarekere, Giddenahalli and Mavallipura, where wooden log pyres are being used. Supervisors at electric crematoria say their systems are better as bodies burn faster. It takes three hours to convert a body to ash.

But in case of normal crematoria, including makeshift ones, citizens are allowed to perform some of the last rites, including placing the logs as per rituals. This is the reason why many prefer normal crematoria and which is why the government is creating additional makeshift ones. Bengaluru Urban Deputy Commissioner J Manjunatha told The New Sunday Express: “The cremation ground at Tavarekere was created in just three days. Initially, locals were apprehensive and opposed it. But I made them understand that the virus does not survive on the dead, especially when the pyre is burning at temperatures well over 100 degree Celsius.

I had to stand near the pyre for an entire day to make people understand.” But officials are in the dark about one thing: The bodies burnt in PPE suits are posing immense danger to those in attendance, as the burning suits emit carcinogenic chemicals, and no assessment was sought from the Karnataka State Pollution Control Board before embarking on this practice. Meanwhile, in Mysuru, despite a record spike in cases and gradually increasing mortality which touched 13 on Friday, cremations are still carried out at the single electric crematorium on the outskirts of Mysuru city, manned by just two operators. One of them, Mahadev, says he has never seen so many bodies coming to the crematorium.

Additional Deputy Commissioner BS Manjunathaswamy says in addition to the existing one, a long-delayed electric crematorium will be ready in a week’s time. And for burial of pandemic victims, a five-acre plot on the city outskirts at Ramanahalli has been handed over to Mysuru City Corporation. But that, he admits, is only for the current mortality rate -- if deaths rise substantially, there could be a problem. Compared to Bengaluru, Covid deaths in Dharwad district are few. On Friday, the district reported seven deaths, the highest in a day. As the death rate is low, Hubballi- Dharwad Municipal Corporation (HDMC) is helping the deceased’s families in cremation.

HDMC has identified Heggeri graveyard for Covid-19 burials, where trained persons are deployed to handle the final rites. Another graveyard has been identified near the Muslim burial ground in the city centre. Both Ballari and newly formed Vijayanagara districts together reported the highest single-day deaths of 16. Ballari city has an electric crematorium for Covid-19 bodies. In other taluks, a burial ground each has been identified by local bodies, and final rites are carried out by the staff. The lack of adequate space for the dead is a problem that is mainly seen in Bengaluru, and not so much in other parts of the state.

For instance, places like Shivamogga city have one crematorium and one special burial ground for performing the last rites of the dead. In Udupi city, social worker Nithyanand Volakad, observing the ground situation, says, ‘’Covid victims of Udupi city and surrounding villages are cremated at Indrali crematorium, but the situation is shocking. The deceased’s family is forced to bring firewood for the cremation. This is because maintenance of the crematorium has not been assigned to any agency.” Kalaburagi resident Santosh, who lost his father to Covid-19, says despite officials being cooperative and having handed over the body after protocols, he and his family members were not allowed to see his father’s face, a regular practice during the last rites.

However, in Kalaburagi, none has objected to either burying or cremating the Covid-19 dead. There are seven graveyards in Kalaburagi city, besides one in each village of the district. The district administration uses electric crematorium for unclaimed bodies. An exclusive graveyard for Covid-19 dead is being readied in Khandadal village on Kalaburagi’s outskirts on one acre of land, says District Surgeon of Kalaburagi District Government Hospital Dr Ambaraya Rudrawadi.

Inputs from: Bosky Khanna; Ajith MS; Arunkumar Huralimath; Kiran Balannanavar; Marx Tejaswi; Prajna GR; Ramkrishna Badseshi; Prakash Samaga


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