‘Dignity in death is the birthright of each living thing,’ these were the words of Bhagat Puran Singh. Unfortunately, with an ever-increasing number of people passing away due to COVID-19, it seems that the virus takes away its victim’s dignity in death as well.
The sudden rise in demises puts immeasurable pressure on the graveyard and crematorium infrastructure and their under-appreciated and uncared-for staff.
However, in a moment of hope, even in the end, there are also young people like Nicole Cherian, Tina Cherian, and Samuel Joseph, who are working overtime to provide the dead dignity during their final journey.
Nicole Cherian (20) is a final year student of social work at St. Josephs College of Arts and Science in Bengaluru. For the last week or so, after she gets done with her online classes, she leaves home in the afternoon and heads to the graveyard nearby. Once there, she and her cousins, Tina Cherian (21) and Samuel Joseph (38) assist in giving COVID-19 victims a decent send-off.
Given the situation, there are no final goodbyes, no wakes, and no memorial services, or even people to dig graves and bury their loved ones. There have also been instances when the family is scared to go into the room of a COVID-19 patient, and when the body reaches the graveyard, it is in a state of decomposition.
Nicole says, “There are times when a COVID-19 patient dies alone in isolation and in such cases, we have a team that goes, wraps up the body and brings it back to the graveyard in an ambulance. Sometimes the family can gather for the final send-off, and sometimes it’s just us, volunteers.”
“On average, there are about 20 bodies that are being brought in every day. The maximum we have seen is upwards of 25, and the minimum has been at 15,” says Nicole in conversation with The Better India.
What happens at the graveyard?
Once at the site, the volunteers get into their PPE suits and are ready for the job. “Once the ambulance comes in, about 5 to 6 of us take a trolley/stretcher and get the body out of the ambulance. If the body is too heavy, we shift it into a body bag and then onto a stretcher. The body is then carried to the burial site, and we lower the coffin once the priest is done with the prayers,” says Tina a final year medical student at Kasturba Medical College, Mangalore.
When asked if she feels a sense of fear, Nicole is quick to say, “no,” and goes on, “there are moments when fear takes over, especially when one reads all the stories about COVID-19 doing the rounds. But, honestly, it is with a strong mind that I can go on with what I am doing.”
“We are taking all precautions to ensure safety, but at the back of my mind, there is a small fear. I know I am meant to do this, so I will go on.”
There are challenges that the volunteers face and speaking about it, Tina says, “There was a body of a rather big man, and as we tried to lower the body, we realised that the grave was not big enough. We were six of us handling the body and it was physically difficult even then. We had to pull the body back on top and even though there was mud on the body, it had to be done. We did all of it, got the grave dug bigger and buried the body. There was such a collective sigh of relief after we managed to bury the body.” Nicole recollects just sitting by the gravesite after it was done, feeling a sense of exhaustion, both physically and emotionally.
There are also poignant moments when family members come and thank the volunteers for the service they are so selflessly performing. “There was a lady who was weeping but even in that state made it a point to thank us for what we are doing,” says Tina.
What does it mean to be a volunteer at the graveyard?
Nicole is one of the younger volunteers, and when asked how she deals with this kind of tragedy every day, she says, “I am surrounded by immense love at home, from my family. I have always seen my father [Mathew Cherian] do so much to help those in need and those less privileged. I am glad to be of help at this juncture.” While Nicole tends to invest emotionally in the work that she is doing, Samuel says that he looks at it as something that needs to be done. “I find that I am detached from it and do not invest emotionally.”
For Samuel, a former pilot with Etihad, volunteering at the graveyard leaves him with a sense of being blessed. “We see so many people who have lost their family members and going through such tough times, that it leaves me with a sense of gratefulness. I am happy to be in a position that lets me help.” The first few times, when one is surrounded with the pain and misery, it hits hard. However, Samuel says that he tries to disconnect and not get emotionally invested in the pain he sees around.
(Edited by Vinayak Hegde)