As roads in the city have fallen silent with people confined to their homes amid a national lockdown, the farewells bid to the departed have become even quieter and bereft of elaborate rituals. Unlike many who usually turn up for last rites in support of the grieving family, the numbers have dwindled to single digits. Those attending the last rites, have no flowers to offer to the departed, they pay their respects with lowered heads. Even those turning up are mindful of the physical distance they are required to maintain to prevent the spread of COVID-19.
Thirty-three-year old Shashikant Kamble’s sexagenarian father collapsed after having dinner on Friday. He passed away later in a hospital. On Saturday afternoon, he sat with ten of his friends, all spread out on four large steel benches, their faces masked with handkerchiefs, watching his father’s pyre at the Muktidham, Hindu crematorium in Andheri East. His mother and younger brother left sooner because it was getting crowded.
“We couldn’t find everything we needed for the last rites. I couldn’t buy an earthen pot, the flower market was shut so we couldn’t buy any flowers. I could only get ghee from a local shop and we had a white shroud to cover the body with,” said Kamble, who lives near Sahar and works as a driver.
Kamble was asked to collect his father’s ashes in four hours but he said he would come the next morning. There was another thing that worried him, “We would have gone to Chaityabhoomi in Dadar before we immersed the ashes but with this lockdown, I don’t know if that will be possible. May be we will go to Juhu. I am not sure,” he said.
Missing from the scene was also a priest, who performs the last rites. “Many Gurujis have also said that they will not be able to perform pujas for the last rites since the lockdown. People who come are grieving. We try to tell them politely not to crowd, to keep a safe distance from each other. They don’t resist. They also know that this time is like not like any other,” said Rajesh Mane, an attendant at the BMC-run crematorium. He added that at all the cremations that have taken place since March 22, the day on which the country observed the Janata curfew, only small groups of four and five have been coming for the last rites.
“People have themselves started coming in small groups. In most cases, it is just the immediate family. Neighbours, friends who used to come before are staying away. Everybody understands that it is in their own interest,” said Mane.
Mane said that they had stocked up enough on wood in their godown to last the lockdown period, even if the fresh supply of wood had stopped. Mohan Modak, a Hindu priest, who has been performing final rites for 25 years, said, “I get at least ten or 12 calls every day asking me to come and perform the puja but I have refused to go at least until April 14. The government has asked everyone to stay at home and avoid crowds and we, as responsible citizens, must follow that. The puja before the antim kriya (final rites) is a matter of faith and devotion but it is not mandatory.”
At the Golibar Sunni Muslim Qabrastan in Santacruz (East) the green iron gate was closed on Saturday. Apart from the burial ground, the Dargah within the premises is also closed for visitors. Aslam Ansari, a volunteer at the burial ground said that in the last three days there has been only one Janazah with which 50 people had come, they however, spaced out keeping a safe distance. With most others there have been seven or eight persons at the most.
Outside the burial ground, chicken shops and the vegetable markets lay deserted. Squares have been drawn on the ground so that people queuing up to buy essentials keep a safe distance.
Fareed Shaikh, another volunteer at the burial ground said, “People have, on their own, started keeping away. Two days back a 40-day old child passed away. The family from a nearby building came to bury the child with very few people. The fateha prayer that is held before the burial is also not being held and people are not even crowing at the homes of grieving family.” Flowers have conspicuous in their absence from last rites. He said that relatives and friends who live far in the city, apart from their own safety, are not sure if they can come without seeking prior permission from the police.
At the Christian cemetery in Sewri, Vishnu, one of the few workers of the 36 at the cemetery, seals an eight-day-old grave with soil and dried rose petals. The strength of the workers has been brought down to about six since the lockdown in the wake of the COVID-19 virus.
Only one burial was held at the city’s largest Christian Cemetery on Saturday. K K Gaikwad, the works manager, has served at the cemetery for 37 years. “I have never seen such a time in my life,” he says from behind a mask covering his nose and mouth. Since March 22, ten burials took place at the cemetery. The chapel within its premises has been closed. Plastic chairs used for prayer meetings sit stacked high up. The open space outside the chapel is where families are allowed to say their prayers.
“Earlier burials could be short or long. If it was a well-known person, about 250-300 people would come. Many would want to pay their respects, say a prayer in the memory of the departed. That would go on for an hour sometimes but now very few people are coming and most burials are wound up in 15-20 minutes from the gate to the grave. People aren’t bringing flowers anymore. Some of them light candles,” said Gaikwad.
He said that if they start feeling that the crowd is getting too big or needs to space out, they usually inform the priest. “People listen if the priest tells them. Since they are grieving we don’t want to disturb them. Many are now seeking police permission for 15 people before they arrive at the cemetery. We keep an eye on the crowd. People are also well aware of the situation and they are themselves taking care too,” said Gaikwad.
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