The number would not be on her contacts list. But every day, when Selina Michael’s mobile phone starts ringing, she knows who it is — usually a member of a bereaved family, alerting her that a dead body is on the way. Immediately, Selina leaves home for the crematorium nearby to prepare for the final rites. Once done, she pulls down the iron shutter. “Come back in 2-3 hours, I’ll give you the ashes,” she tells the mourners.
At the Kakkanad crematorium in Kochi, Selina presents an unusual sight — a woman in charge of a crematorium, a Christian completely at ease with Hindu rituals. At 52, Selina has been following this routine for the last 11 years. So much so, she says, the crematorium is now virtually her “backyard”. “The mind needs to be strong. Women can do any job they want. There were times when I have cremated bodies even at 3 am. I have never felt scared,” she says.
Selina’s journey to the crematorium in Thrikkakara municipality has its origins in a difficult childhood and a traumatic marriage. “I lost my mother when I was two. My father and her aunt lost their sight when I was 12, which forced me to drop out of school. When I was married at 22 to a daily-wage labourer, Michael, I thought my life would get back on track. But it didn’t. He would drink, come home and beat me. My two daughters grew up seeing this. Michael would often leave home, returning after a few months with a lot of debt. The last time he left home was 19 years ago. Nobody knows where he is now,” she says.
To keep her family afloat, Selina started taking up odd jobs, mostly as a daily-wage construction worker. But when the financial burden started weighing her down, she says she “grabbed” the job of a helper at the crematorium “with both hands”.
“An acquaintance, who was then the caretaker, taught me the basics. For the first four years, I worked under him, assisting him in cremating bodies,” she says. “My daughters never objected to my work, but my brother initially tried to stop me. I said, ‘Ok, will you take care of my expenses? Will you repay my debts?’ Then he stopped,” she says.
After four years, when the caretaker retired, Selina bagged the tender to operate the crematorium on her own. “The cost of cremating a body is Rs 1,500, out of which I have to pay the municipality a fee of Rs 405. Then, I have to spend money on wood and coconut shells before I manage a small profit. There are days when we get up to four bodies a day… November-December was lean, very few bodies came in. I don’t know why, God didn’t help,” she says, laughing.
The job is tough, she admits, especially “breathing all the smoke”, but she doesn’t regret having taken it up. “With earnings from the crematorium, I was able to educate and get my two daughters married. My younger daughter’s two girls literally grew up at the crematorium, even assisting me sometimes. But my elder daughter’s two sons don’t come inside, they are scared,” she says, smiling.
Selina, strangely, has “no thoughts to offer on life and death”. She beams with pride when people on streets identify her as “the lady from the crematorium”. “I will continue as long as I can. Every year, a tender is given out. With the price of wood going up, it’s difficult to get the tender. But even if I lose the tender, I am hoping whoever gets it, will give me a job,” she says.
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