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‘Humanity is greater than religion… my father’s coffin was buried by a Muslim, a Hindu and two others’

“We have officiated that a minimum service should be provided at the time of the burial of a Christian Covid-19 death, understanding the circumstances and situation of the case," said the Orthodox Delhi Diocese Metropolitan.

Written by Christina George | New Delhi | Updated: June 16, 2020 11:36:33 pm
christin covid- burial A basic Christian burial includes a prayer service conducted by a priest at the burial. (Express photo by Abhinav Saha/Representational)

When a 26-year-old woman residing with her mother in Delhi got the news of the death of her father, a 62-year-old retired Delhi Police officer, on Wednesday, the first thing she did was call up her priest and ask what to do.

With very little clarity on how to deal with the situation, both the mother and daughter felt helpless on the 10th day of their quarantine period, with the other sibling away in Saudi Arabia.

“I cannot come. I will pray for the soul,” is the reply she got from the other side. The mother then made another phone call, this time to a blood relative to help them claim the body as per the hospital guidelines. But the relative refused to help.

It was 12 pm by then and they were still in the house, struggling to find ways to deal with the situation. Soon after, when the local police got the news, permission was granted to them to leave the house. The family made a few more phone calls and were able to gather two acquaintances to assist them at the hospital.

“The past 10 days, we were being accused of bringing corona to the neighbourhood, we were stigmatised and not supported. And now, when my father died, the neighbourhood was shut like it never existed,” said the daughter.

With the grief of loss and worried about how to conduct the last rites according to the faith, they left for Lok Nayak Hospital (LNJP) hospital. “While reaching the hospital, both of us were clueless where the burial will be done. Will he be given space at any cemetery or not,” said the inconsolable daughter. A basic Christian burial includes a prayer service conducted by a priest at the burial.

The family finally claimed the body around 5 pm after completing the formalities. Because it was late, the hospital failed to arrange any staff to accompany the body to the cemetery. The ola driver, who drove the mother and daughter to the hospital, also refused to drop them till the burial ground.

The family then called up Hussain, 35, an auto-driver, who was aware of their situation, who agreed to take them to the burial ground.

“The mother and daughter were in pain and I couldn’t refuse them. They were alone on the saddest day of their lives. No relatives, no preachers they believed in turned up. I couldn’t let down the humanity in me at such an hour,” said Hussain.

The family reached the Budh Vihar Shamsan ghat in Mangolpuri, the designated cemetery for Christian Covid-19 deaths, around 6 pm. The adjoining Muslim Cemetery and Hindu crematorium were flooded with dead bodies while the Christian cemetery was empty.

Read | Explained: What is behind the mismatch in Delhi’s Covid death figures?

Unable to bear the pain of burying her husband without the rituals, the deceased wife prayed that such a day should not come in anyone’s life. “Today, when we look back, we know for sure, we don’t have many to count on. The world is fake,” she said.

The helper at the cemetery, who dug the 14-foot pit required for a Covid-19 burial, said not many bodies have come here. “Whether a Covid-19 death or any kind of death, this is my job and I wouldn’t pull back because of fear or stigma,” said Sanjay, who has been the cemetery caretaker for over 15 years now.

One of the acquaintances, Sanal, a nurse at Kalra Hospital, had arranged PPE kits for cemetery workers to help bury the body. “By the time the body was claimed, it was 5 pm, the hospital was short-staffed to send assistance. They made us sign an assurance paper which said we would adhere to the government rules which included taking the body straight to the burial ground and not inviting crowd for the service,” said Sanal.

According to the daughter, a north-Indian Pastor, who was passing by, stopped when he saw the burial taking place without a priest. He read a chapter of the bible to console the grieving family.

“My father’s coffin was buried by a Muslim auto driver, a Hindu cemetery helper, and two other God-sent angels, who proved that humanity is greater than any religion or belief, we blindly put faith into,” said the daughter, who, despite everything, is proud to witness humanity at her father’s burial.

“My father will take the heavenly abode, but I am not sure about people who denied help because they were scared.”

Also read | ‘Ill-treatment of Covid-19 patients, lack of decent burial’: SC takes suo moto cognizance

The priest of the parish the deceased was part of said they had done all the needful when the patient was admitted. “Because this was the first death from our community in Delhi, we were worried and scared and we didn’t know how to go about the funeral… We will provide all the after funeral service with full dignity and I never meant to be away from the family during such a time,” said Fr. Johnson, the parish priest.

How have the churches responded to this?

The Orthodox Delhi Diocese Metropolitan His Grace Dr Youhanon Mar Demetrious said this is a new situation for all the churches across the country and that a set of guidelines have been provided to all priests. “We have officiated that a minimum service should be provided at the time of the burial of a Christian Covid-19 death, understanding the circumstances and situation of the case,” said the Metropolitan, adding that this shall be in adherence to the central, state, and local administrative guidelines.

A statement issued by the diocese on Saturday also mentioned that it is advised the body to be cremated and “ashes could be interred in a Christian cemetery and full service will be provided at the site.”

Father Savari Muthu, media manager of the Delhi Catholic Diocese, said it is a parish priest’s responsibility to ensure that a member receives a dignified burial. “Two Catholic deaths have happened in Delhi due to Covid-19 and both received a traditional Christian burial ensuring all safety and guidelines,” he said.

Father Ninan Philip performing the burial ceremony. ( Express web photo)

Father Ninan Philip, Vicar of the St. Thomas Church, Dubai, dug the grave of a Covid-19 deceased in Oud Maitha himself when workers were not available. He said, “as long as the guidelines and rules of the nation allow for it, it is our duty as a priest to ensure that the faithful are given a respectful burial with dignity.”

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