A red bag carrying an urn is lying in a locker at the Shiv Dham crematorium in Goregaon since May 3. The urn contains the ashes of Aarmogam Chellaya, in his early seventies, who passed away on May 3 of natural causes. It has been over three months now since he was cremated, and there is every likelihood that the urn containing his ashes may occupy the space for much longer.
Chellaya’s son-in-law Satyanarayan told The Indian Express that the urn will remain until Chellaya’s youngest son Venkatesh, currently behind bars in connection with a murder case, gets bail to immerse the ashes as per custom.
Citing Covid-19 restrictions, the Dindoshi court rejected two bail applications that sought permission for Venketesh so that he could perform the ritual. Chellaya did not die of Covid, but crematoriums across the city are facing several challenges unleashed by the pandemic, from storing urns of ashes for months together to disposing the ashes of deceased Covid patients, whose family members are not keen to collect them, despite evidence that the infection does not spread from the ashes of a dead person.
A civic employee at the Shiv Dham crematorium, said that out of 10 deaths due to Covid, only four to five families come to collect the ashes for immersion. “In several cases, we keep calling them asking them to collect the urn but they don’t turn up. Eventually, they ask us to dispose it. They are too scared of contracting the virus,” he said.
The employee, who spoke requesting anonymity, said the ashes and bones are sent away with regular garbage picked up by BMC garbage trucks. “In all cases, leftover ashes are sent in BMC vans. In cases where remains are not claimed, they too are disposed of in a similar manner,” the employee said.
At present, the crematorium has 44 urns, including that of Chellaya. “In some cases, immediate family members come to conduct the last rites but as they have to quarantine themselves, they ask us to keep the urn for 14 days after which they collect it. While earlier we would ask them to collect the urn the same day that the pyre is lit, we are making exceptions during Covid,” the employee said.
At the Muktidham crematorium in Chakala, Death Register Karkoon (DRK) Anil Asawale said that they ask people who come to cremate family members if they will be collecting the ashes for immersion. “If they are not going to return, we dispose of the remains. In eight out of 10 cases, if a family says they will return to collect the ashes they do. The few that don’t, most are rich and educated families who are scared of catching the illness even though there is nothing to worry about,” Asawale said. An employee added that in one locker they now keep three to four urns as many return after 14 days of quarantine to immerse the ashes.
Dr Mangala Gomre, BMC’s Executive Health Officer said, “While in most cases family members are collecting ashes, in Covid cases where family members do not come, we dispose of the ashes in the regular solid waste collected by BMC vans. We, however, keep bones and mark it in case family members want to claim it later.”
At Ramkund in Nashik located along the banks of Godavari river, Nilesh Dixit, who performs the ‘shuddikaran’ rituals, said that before the pandemic, he would perform the immersion rites at least six to seven times a day. “It has now come down to three a day. Only some people from Mumbai and Thane come here. People from other states no longer come,” Dixit told The Indian Express. He added, “We take care of social distancing during immersion. We wear masks and gloves and the urn carrying the ashes too is sanitised before we touch it. There are around 150 pandits here and the procedure is entirely safe.”
Advocate Prashant Gurav, who represents Venkatesh, had sought the court’s permission to grant him bail so that he could carry out his father’s last rites at Nashik. “We were hopeful that the court would grant him bail, however it was rejected. Till the time he can perform the immersion, the ashes will remain in the urn in the crematorium,” Gurav said.
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