TIRUCHY: Vignesh takes off his sweat-soaked full-body PPE kit to take a break. However, the telephone on a nearby table rings, telling the 27-year-old that it is time he got back to work again. On the other end of the phone is a representative of Mahatma Gandhi Memorial Government Hospital (MGMGH). He informs Vignesh that a 30-year-old man has died of Covid-19 a few hours ago. Seriousness engulfs Vignesh’s voice as he replies, “Kondu vaanga (Bring it here)” and alerts his fellow employees to make all arrangements.
The chimney atop the Oyyamari crematorium functioning along the banks of the Cauvery has been billowing thick smoke on a regular basis for the past few months. With the second wave of Covid-19 wreaking havoc across the country, this largest crematorium in Tiruchy city has been functioning continuously, giving a respectful send-off to those who lost their battle with the virus.
Vignesh, an engineering graduate, is among the seven employees working at the crematorium. “This is a public service. Many people come here emotionally asking us to provide a peaceful send-off to their loved ones. We try to provide them enough space to grieve, before taking them inside. But, at no point of time do we compromise on our safety or that of the deceased's relatives,” Vignesh says.
As the ambulance from the hospital pulls inside the crematorium, Vignesh starts collecting documents from the relatives who arrive. Technician Siva Perumal (35) and his assistants Aravind (21), Arun Pandiyan (24), Vignesh (27) and Kannan (24) cover themselves in new PPE kits.
Perumal says, “ We put on a fresh kit every time we cremate a body. SAt the end of the day, we have to go home to our families. Not even the uniform shirt we use here goes home. We sanitise ourselves after we cremate every dead body and go back to our houses only after taking a proper bath in the facility here.”
With the safety kits on, Aravind, Arun Pandiyan, Vignesh and Kannan open the door of the ambulance, place the packed body on a metal stretcher and sanitise it. The ambulance door and the freezer box inside are also cleaned using disinfectants before the body is taken inside. Once disinfected, the four youths carry the body to the furnace, where Siva Perumal is waiting.
“We allow only two to -three close relatives to witness the cremation from a distance. Once the body is brought inside the furnace area, the technician directs his assistants on where to place the body on the slider. The family is then allowed to carry out rituals or prayers before the cremation," adds Vignesh.
Once the body is kept on the slider, a relative is allowed to light camphor and leave it on the packed body. Siva Perumal and his assistants slowly push the heavy slider inside the furnace and close it with a metal sheet to avoid the flame from leaping out. The employees then remove their safety gear and safely dispose it.
The relatives wait at another spot to collect the ashes.
“The two burners here run on bio-gas. The entire process takes about an hour. The ashes are collected and given to the family members in an earthen pot. While some immerse the pot in rivers, some put the pot inside a box and then bury it,” says Arokiya Doss (42), a Corporation supervisor who is present at the crematorium all the time.
Even as the furnace door is slammed, the ambulance driver leaves the crematorium, with perhaps a hope that such frequent trips to the facility would end soon.