An increasing number of Christian families are finding it hard to undertake traditional funeral rites of Covid-19 victims due to the absence of grave diggers in Mumbai. Many are shelling out extra money to get grave diggers from outside to bury their loved ones.
On Tuesday, 68-year-old Namdeo Sangle was laid to rest a day after he died at Nair hospital. His family spent Rs 20,800 to hire three grave diggers from Borivali to bury him at Sewri Christian Cemetery. The usual cost for digging a grave is around Rs 800.
“I have never experienced such a harrowing time,” his son Sachin Sangle said. “The guards initially said no burials of Covid-19 bodies were taking place at the cemetery. We had to fight with the management to provide us some space,” he said. While the cemetery agreed to provide space, it asked the family to arrange a coffin and grave diggers.
Following this, the family started making calls for grave diggers. Three men, who are also ambulance drivers, agreed to do the job. Personal protective equipment (PPE) was arranged for them. The diggers asked for Rs 22,000, the family pleaded and finally paid Rs 20,000. On Tuesday afternoon, the diggers travelled 30 km from Borivali to Sewri and Namdeo was finally buried.
The cemetery’s permanent grave diggers have refused to bury Covid-19 patients, the family was told. Reverent John Silas, a trustee in the Sewri cemetery, said even grave diggers are scared of Covid-19.
“Our chairman takes all decisions after consulting the committee. I have not been to the cemetery myself so I don’t know the issues with grave diggers. Everybody in the city is nervous and scared,” he added.
Local activist Cyril Dara, however, said the trustees do not provide PPE to diggers.
In Bandra, another family faced a similar harrowing time on Tuesday following the death Covid-19 infected Francis Barretto. The administration in St Andrews Church initially refused to bury him. “When we told them that BMC rules allow burial of a Covid-19 body, they agreed,” said Dara.
Barretto died at Holy Family hospital. His relative Anthony Fernandes said when he reached out to an undertaker to purchase a coffin and find grave diggers, he was told “they don’t touch Covid-19 bodies”.
“It took us time to find another undertaker. He agreed to arrange for grave diggers and coffin, and charged us Rs 15,000,” Fernandes said. A coffin usually costs Rs 4,000 to Rs 6,000.
Community members said burials have turned into a money minting business. Coffin providers are now providing a package charging for PPE, grave diggers and coffin.
Joseph Rodriguez, who works as an undertaker in Kurla, said he gets two to three calls every day to arrange for grave diggers. He said he charges Rs 17,000 for coffin, grave diggers and PPE. “Grave diggers have been demanding Rs 2,000 to Rs 3,000 per grave since the pandemic began,” he added.
“So many people are helpless and have no option but to pay exorbitant charges. Some are forced to opt for cremation if they can’t afford coffin and grave diggers,” Dara said.
Mathai Varghese (57) of Kandivali, who died due to Covid-19 at home, was cremated on May 25, as nearby cemeteries refused to bury him.
In April, the Archdiocese of Bombay had said that people who had died of Covid-19 could be cremated as well. The BMC had earlier earmarked four cemeteries where bodies of Christian victims of Covid-19 could be buried. However, on June 13, it issued a directive asking all Christian cemeteries to accept bodies of Covid-19 patients.
While Christians are facing difficulty in burial, several Muslim cemeteries have framed a protocol. “Such problems occurred in the initial days. Now, at Bada Kabristan in Marine Lines, graves are kept ready since several Covid-19 bodies come in a day,” said Shoeb Hashim, a social activist.
Khalid Shaikh, a Nagpada resident, said since several Muslim cemeteries have started receiving Covid-19 bodied, trustees have arranged for PPE for their workers.
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