What happens to Delhi’s unclaimed bodies? An inside look

Roadside to autopsy table, hearse to last rites, it's such a long journey for an unclaimed corpse -- and that too, with some unlikely companions

Written by Hemani Bhandari | Updated: October 6, 2016 4:50 pm
Delhi Mortuary at Kashmiri Gate in New Delhi (Express Photo by Amit Mehra) Delhi Mortuary at Kashmiri Gate in New Delhi (Express Photo by Amit Mehra)

*NE young girl dead body found at DDA park, Vikaspuri, body at DDU hospital, West Delhi. Volunteers or representatives nearby please rush to identify her, some say her name is sasa/lily. NE police on way to hospital.

Within hours of the body being found, this message had started racing through various police WhatsApp groups — and this was just one of the 2,511 unclaimed bodies found in Delhi’s seven mortuaries this year, till September 23, according to the Zonal Integrated Police Network.

So what happens to the hundreds of such bodies that are found on the desolate roads, on the banks of the Yamuna and on the busy streets of the national capital, with no one but a clutch of unknown officials to accompany them in the last chapter of their life, rather death.

Most of the bodies are cremated or buried by the police while some lie wrapped in black body bags at Delhi’s hard-pressed mortuaries, waiting for the final nod from the investigating officer for them to be disposed off. The bodies are kept here for three days – more in some cases, depending on evidence collected at the spot — before they are taken to a cremation or burial ground.

“As soon as we see the body, we get to know the type of case it’s going to be, whether it’s going to require a post-mortem or not, whether it’s a natural death, accident or murder,” says a senior police officer.

The first thing that police does, she says, is look for a tattoo, a birth mark, a piece of paper, anything that can help identify the person. “Many people have their names, religious symbols, spouse’s names, or something like that tattooed, which helps us the most in case of an unidentified body,” says the officer, on condition of anonymity.

The next 72 hours — the time a body can be kept in a mortuary officially — are crucial because that’s when the investigation is carried out. Interestingly, in times of advanced technology, all the police stations in the capital are connected through a WhatsApp group on which the first message in such cases is unofficially sent out. This, of course, is followed by ads in newspapers, while “missing person” checks are done on the police department’s integrated system.

But some cases can throw up unexpected situations.

Once, police came across the body of an African national on a road in north Delhi. He wasn’t unidentified, but was known to “beat officers” and people in the area as “a vagabond”. “No one came to claim his body. We reached out to the embassies but no one came forward. The body was cremated in Delhi,” says the police officer. “It gets very difficult in winters because that’s when we find the most number of unclaimed bodies, mostly vagabonds and drug addicts who can’t survive the extreme cold,” she says.

Inside the mortuary

The dead usually enter the mortuary wrapped in a sheet. They are then placed on a stretcher and kept in cold storage. The doctor will not touch the body until the inquest papers, or official documents of the investigation, are received.

Inside the Sabzi Mandi mortuary, the biggest in Delhi, the strong stench of decaying human flesh hangs in the air. It has two cold storages, adjacent to the autopsy room. An unidentified body, blood collecting on the sides, is waiting to be stitched up on the autopsy table. A masked attendant stands near the table, surgical instruments in hand. “I have worked in mortuaries for the last 18 years. I have grown used to it, it doesn’t matter now. But there are days when we have to cut open a really mangled body, that is still tough,” he says.

Picture used for representational purpose (Express photo) Picture used for representational purpose (Express photo)

It’s a tough life for those who deal with the dead.

According to the 26-point guidelines laid down by the Delhi High Court in 2015 “regular medical check-ups and adequate preventive measures for communicable diseases” are mandatory for the staff handling bodies. “There should be periodic education/sensitizing of medical and other staff regarding handling of the dead with due care and respect,” the rulebook states.

But this attendant at Sabzi Mandi claims he was last given an immunisation shot five years ago, and he’s not even sure for what. “Every now and then, we get cuts and wounds while using blades during the autopsy. We are prone to all sorts of infections but what can we do? How do we know if the body we are dealing with was suffering from any disease. The dead don’t speak. The least they should do is provided us with regular medical check-ups,” he says.

“Dettol bhi khud se lana padta hai (We have to get even the disinfectants on our own),” says another attendant. “I don’t remember when I was last immunised. I remember this one time, while performing autopsy, I got my hand burnt, but the administration didn’t even provide me with an ointment. I requested a staff member on a personal level who helped me,” he says.

Advocate Saquib, amicus curiae appointed by the court to look into the conditions of mortuaries, says, “As a matter of fact, it is highly unlikely that attendants and doctors at mortuaries live till the age of retirement. Generally, they pass away around the age of 50 because of infections. They are also humans and have the basic right to live.”

However, doctors and attendants say the situation has improved over the last 3-4 months after the High Court’s orders following a case in 2013 when a body was found eaten by rats in the mortuary.

From rusting equipment and crumbling walls, the Sabzi Mandi mortuary now has smooth white tiles, cleaner floors, latest equipment and quality masks. “We got a new cold storage chamber, which can accommodate 30 bodies, and the other two have been renovated,” says a senior doctor.

“We’ve got four sets of new autopsy instruments and four more autopsy tables. The autopsy hall has been renovated and three ACs have been installed. We’ve also been given four air purifiers,” he says.

“Earlier, the situation was inexplicably pathetic. They didn’t even have salt to preserve the viscera (internal organs of the body). It’s important to respect the dead no matter where they come from,” says Advocate Saquib.

Today, the mortuary can officially accommodate 60 bodies, says the doctor, although they’re still expected to keep up to 80.

The final journey

From the mortuary, the final journey for these unclaimed bodies, wrapped in white sheets, is on a hearse. That is, once the big question is answered: cremation or burial? In most cases, the bodies are cremated, says an investigating officer from Delhi’s North district. “If we can’t determine the religion, we cremate,” he says.

Picture used for representational purpose (Express photo by Praveen Khanna) Picture used for representational purpose (Express photo by Praveen Khanna)

Once again, the signs on the body, if any, speak for the dead and help decide their last rites.

“If it’s a male, it’s easier to determine if the person is a Hindu or a Muslim but it’s almost impossible to decide for females. But it’s very rare to find an unclaimed body of a woman. I have been in service for last six years and I’ve hardly seen a female body that could not be identified or didn’t have claimants,” says the officer.

In the case of burials, the bodies are mostly handed over to the Delhi Waqf Board.

Meanwhile, a van is summoned, mostly from organisations like Nirankari Bhavan and Shaheed Bhagat Singh Sewa Dal, which provide free services. “We can claim money (Rs 1,000-1,500) for hiring a van and disposing of the body, but then nobody wants to get into all that when there is a free service,” says the officer.

The cremation ground in Nizamuddin, where they let you burn the body for free, is preferred over Nigambodh Ghat, where they charge Rs 1,000 per body, says the police officer. The burial ground near Delhi Gate allows you to bury for free as well, in case the body is not handed to the Waqf Board.

Unfortunately, the dead have to often wait their turn because of the long queue at the cremation ground, or if the flames are still high and the pyre is not grey. And when there’s time, they’re gently placed on a pile of wood. The priest has nothing much to say or perform. A man in uniform is, usually, the only witness to this final journey.