The remains of a hundred cremated bodies lie unclaimed at the crematorium in Sector 25, Chandigarh. Baldev Singh, a priest at the crematorium, said he has never seen so many urns get stacked without being collected by family members. “These have accumulated since the lockdown as a lot of these families have migrated back to their villages and home towns. Plus, it is expensive to finish last rites, or go to Haridwar to submerge the ashes. Usually people collect the urns on the same day or maximum within a week of the cremation,” said Singh. The priest added that the crematorium staff will arrange for the ash filled urns to be taken to Haridwar if no one comes to claim them in the next three months.
Like most else in our lives, the process of grieving a loved one has been drastically altered since the pandemic. Not only is it next to impossible to properly grieve the loss of a loved one who dies of coronavirus, just grieving death has become a challenging and increasingly dehumanising process.
Surinder Kumar, a resident of Bapu Dham colony, recalls the anger and humiliation he felt when he took his deceased sister-in-law to GMSH-16 late on Wednesday night. “They were all so scared of coming close to her, to examine her before they announced her clinical death. This one doctor shouted at us from ten feet away, asking us to cover her face, it was so insensitive,” says Kumar.
Although Kumar’s deceased relative tested negative for Covid-19 posthumously, the night spent at the hospital and the day spent waiting for her test results was the most challenging. As per government rules, the hospital asked Kumar to take the body to the mortuary for testing before they took her home. “But I was just so upset and angry over the way they were treating her. It was so cold and clinical, I fought with them and decided to take her body back regardless,” says Kumar. The man remained stranded outside the hospital on a sidewalk with his young niece until midnight, waiting for an ambulance to take them home, before the hospital staff finally persuaded him to take her body to the mortuary for sampling. “But when we went back inside, a nurse mocked me, asking me why I had changed my mind and got the body back when I was so against it at first. It was so inappropriate,” adds Kumar.
Beyond experiencing the inhuman way in which his relative was treated at the hospital on the night of her death, Kumar says his family’s pain was only compounded by the days spent waiting for her test results. It took more than 24 hours for the family to hear back about her test results, until which they could not even cremate the body. They could only wait in silence, worrying about the logistics of performing last rites in case she did test positive. Even after receiving the test results, they had to make the painful choice of deciding who all will go to the crematorium and who will stay behind.
Only 20 people are now allowed to be present at a cremation. Though in most cases, according to Baldev Singh, only about four to five people are present these days.
Dr Adarsh Kohli, a psychiatrist from the Post Graduate Institute of Medical Education and Research (PGIMER) explains that though in most traditions, death has always been followed by logistical decisions and last rites, the experience of grieving death has never been as clinical and dehumanising as it has been since the pandemic. “The death of a loved one is always followed by a cathartic process of grieving collectively. It is always a social exercise, but now people are not afforded that space and time to grieve. Hence, it has become a very traumatic experience for everyone, more so than it already is,” explains Dr Kohli, adding, “You cannot pay respects because you cannot touch or carry the body on your shoulders. Somewhere it also leads to a guilt that the person who died will not get eternal peace because the formalities were not completed so it’s a very strange situation.”
A woman from Panchkula, whose maternal grandmother passed away recently, recalls the guilt and anxiety her mother harboured for not being able to visit her parents before her mother passed away. “She is asthmatic so none of our family members wanted to risk her health by asking her to come to the hospital. She was devastated and she is such a bad state these days, she cannot sleep. She is very anxious and restless. It has really taken a toll on her,” says the woman, who wishes to remain anonymous. “There is no time to grieve since there are so many logistics to handle. We have to decide who can visit the cremation or any other ritual. We even had to call a few relatives and ask them not to come,” adds the woman.
“I can never forget this experience. It was so scarring for the family,” says Kumar, the man from Bapu Dham colony. The man states that he is shaken by how instantly human life can be reduced to a body and a potential source of infection. “One minute she was breathing and alive, and the next thing, she is placed on a cold slab and sampled for a disease,” he says.
📣 The Indian Express is now on Telegram. Click here to join our channel (@indianexpress) and stay updated with the latest headlines