While the pain of losing a parent, a friend, a distant relative or even a neighbour might be insurmountable, it is even more poignant to think of not getting the chance to say one last goodbye to them. As per the restrictions owing to the coronavirus pandemic, many were unable to participate in the last rites of a loved one.
Many such horrifying stories flooded the internet at the beginning of the lockdown that revealed how thousands did not get a dignified funeral. But, in Bengaluru, Karnataka, the Mercy Angels have been diligently working to change this reality. The 40-member team, which includes people from different professions like businessmen, human resource managers and even doctors, began working for this cause in March.
Till date, Mercy Angels—who are a subsidiary of the Mercy Mission NGO that help the neediest fight against hunger, and now, even the contagion—have ensured over 800 funerals were done for free and in a dignified manner.
Tanveer Ahmed, a volunteer of Mercy Mission says, “Bruhat Bengaluru Mahanagara Palike (BBMP) had a protocol regarding the burial of the COVID-19 patients and we were ready to take up the mission they assigned us to give funerals to victims. The first body Mercy Angels was collected from the St John’s hospital, Bengaluru. Till date we have given a dignified funeral to more than 800 people, which includes a 7-day-old baby and even a 96-year-old man.”
Different hospitals from the city call the Mercy Angels to conduct funerals of the deceased covid patients, if their families aren’t able to collect the body. In many cases, some family members of such patients are quarantined, while others abandon the body due to fear of COVID-19 transmission.
Once the Mercy Angels receive the call, the team wears their PPE suits, which are sponsored by different sponsors, and along with the BBMP they rush to the hospital to collect the body.
“I feel more than the hospital authorities, family members of the deceased give us the call to collect the body, says Tanveer, adding, “The dead body cannot spread the disease.”
The family members of the covid victims also share their gratitude for the work done by the Mercy Angels.
“On November 22, my uncle passed away due to the coronavirus. While I wasn’t sure how to go about the funeral, my friend informed me about the Mercy Angels. I contacted a volunteer in the team and within a short time span, they reached Apollo hospital in PPE suits to collect the body and the funeral was performed,” says Lawrence Susairaj, an HR professional.
He adds, “Till the final proceedings of my uncle’s funeral were complete the Mercy Angels stood on the ground. This is a great team, especially in terms of coordination and hygiene. My family is thankful for the way the team took over and completed all the last rites of my uncle on our behalf, as we could only stand and watch the funeral from a distance.”
A businessman and a volunteer of Mercy Angel, Naveen Irfan Iqbal. says, “The government has given the nod to bury or cremate the body according to the faith of the deceased. So, if we collect a Muslim covid victim’s body, we call the authorities of the Muslim burial ground from the hospital itself and coordinate with them.”
Speaking of the precautions taken to carry out these funerals, he adds, “The burial ground authorities will inform the gravediggers to dig 10-foot graves, which are sometimes dug using an earthmover. Once we reach the ground, our Mercy Angels team members take the body sealed in three layers of protective cover from the ambulance and place it in the grave. The ground is then covered with mud and sprayed using bleach powder and disinfectant.”
Naveen says that for a Christian covid patient the steps involved are largely the same however, “for a Hindu person, the body is cremated”. “Sometimes the family members will accompany us, but sometimes they don’t. There was a time when I collected the ashes of a Hindu covid patient and immersed them in a river, with the permission of the family members as they couldn’t accompany us,” he says.
After the last rites, the Mercy Angels remove their PPE suits and sanitise themself.
The funeral proceedings are overseen by BBMP officials and finalise paperwork. The ambulance used for transportation of the body goes into a 16-hour sanitation process sponsored by the BBMP.
Not only do these volunteers go above and beyond to give the dead a dignified funeral, but also provide free ration kits and medicines to the needy. The group were also key helpers in getting a few migrant workers back home during the lockdown.
(Edited by Yoshita Rao)
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