Updated: July 27, 2020 11:28:33 am
One of the times in the past few months when volunteers from Mercy Angels, a group facilitating Covid-19 funerals in Bengaluru, broke down was at the cremation of a 17-day-old.
The parents of the newborn were in quarantine after testing positive for coronavirus and their relatives were back home in north India.
“The baby was handed over in a bag. Nobody was with that child so we were the family and we performed the last rites. A lot of us cried,” says Dr Taha Mateen, founder trustee of HBS Hospital which started the Mercy Angels programme in March.
With Bengaluru witnessing a Covid-19 surge, social service initiatives like Mercy Angels are at the forefront of ensuring dignified funerals for the victims.
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On Friday, Mercy Angels member Tanveer Ahmed waited in a PPE kit beside a freshly dug grave at the Christian cemetery in Kalpalli for the arrival of a 65-year-old man’s body. Five others, including a priest, waited with Ahmed in PPE kits.
When the body arrived in an ambulance arranged by Mercy Angels, Ahmed and his associate Naveed Iqbal, who recently recovered from Covid-19, lowered it into the grave with help from others.
The man died at St Philomenas Hospital and although local authorities insisted on a cremation, the family wanted a burial. “The family reached out to us. I told them that if they can get permission for a grave to be dug at Kalpally, we can facilitate the burial,” says Ahmed.
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“We are really thankful to Mercy Angels volunteers,” says Pavan Kumar, a relative of the 65-year-old.
There has been resistance to burial of Covid-19 victims at Christian burial grounds due to stigma. Also, authorities have mandated 12-feet graves instead of conventional graves four to five feet in depth.
A few days ago, Ahmed and his team were not allowed to enter a burial ground with the body of an 86-year-old man due to resistance from local residents. Ahmed says many Christians have opted for cremations.
“What is happening is that if you dig too deep, many are wary that some graves will collapse. In many Christian burial grounds, you cannot bring in a JCB. The graves are close and it has to be manually done,” says Ahmed.
“A youngster from the Lingayat community died recently. Lingayats generally bury, but he was cremated,” he says.
“When there is a Covid-19 death, we inform the family of the service of Mercy Angels and other groups and provide them contact numbers,” said Dr Asima Bhanu, nodal officer at the Covid-19 facility in Victoria Hospital.
The Khudus Sab Muslim burial ground, one of the biggest burial grounds in the city, has seen burials of 140 Covid-19 victims in July so far.
“There are around eight to nine Covid-19 burials daily, apart from five or six regular ones,” says Wasim Zubair, a volunteer with Helping Hands, a group facilitating Muslim burials.
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While volunteers from Mercy Angels bring bodies to the Khudus Saheb burial ground, they are then taken to the site of the burial by the Helping Hands volunteers—22 of them are stationed at the grounds through the day.
One of the volunteers is 70-year-old Abdul Majeed.
“We do it for free. The only thing we ask people to do is to pray for us,” said Zubair. “By the mercy of God, none of us has tested positive. We take all precautions.” “What we are doing is about humanity,” says Sarfaraz, another volunteer.
At the crematoriums where the last rites for Covid-19 victims are being carried out, volunteers often have to wait for long, says Ahmed.
“We have to book an online slot. On July 23, a woman died and two volunteers took the body from Sakra Hospital. They went to a nearby crematorium, but were told that the machine was damaged. They had to bring the body to Hebbal and had to wait for 90 minutes,” he says.
“There is unimaginable pressure. The Mercy Angels alone are not able to meet the demand. We need more volunteers. This is just the beginning,” says Dr Mateen.
“The coronavirus does not distinguish on the basis of religion. If we distinguish, it becomes inhuman. We go by the wishes of the family and perform the last rites,” he adds.
The volunteers of Mercy Angels and Helping Hands are from a diverse range of professions— there are doctors, social workers, IT professionals, students and businessmen.
“Every single time, we take someone’s loved one (for last rites), a part of us dies,” says Mohammed Azmath, an IT professional and state-level weightlifter, who is a volunteer with Mercy Angels.
The group has now also started facilitating funerals for non- Covid deaths when family members stay far off. Recently, Sudeep Saha, 37, from West Bengal—who was estranged from his family and lived alone in Bengaluru—died and his family reached out to Mercy Angels. “It is an opportunity to serve. We have to do it,” says Ahmed.
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