During the second wave of COVID-19, Gurugram resident Swati Kapoor was concerned about how she would arrange her father’s funeral arrangements all alone.
“My father had been seriously ill for the past two-three years after suffering a brain stroke. In March 2021, doctors declared that he had reached terminal stage. I didn’t know how to arrange or plan for a funeral,” she recalls.
“I went online looking for solutions and found a venture called Last Journey in Delhi. I read reviews about their work on Google and found that they were largely good. I went onto their website, submitted my details and contact number.”
Two days later, a person from Last Journey called Swati and asked about her requirements for the funeral.
“After exchanging a couple of emails, I coordinated a conference call between our panditji (priest) and the people at Last Journey, and as per our rituals, decided on what was required each step of the way. We planned each step of the funeral process with them. When the doctors had declared my father terminally ill, I paid them an advance amount,” she recalls.
Swati’s father passed away on 11 May 2021. Needless to say, there were serious challenges in organising a funeral during the second wave of the pandemic.
However, the people at Last Journey assured her that they would organise the funeral at a place where there wasn’t too much of a waiting period. Instead of a cremation ground in Green Park, Delhi, they shifted the funeral to the Sarai Kale Khan area, and by 23 May had completed the final prayers.
“Despite some coordination issues, they did a good job of organising the funeral and all the other arrangements associated with it given the challenges posed by the pandemic,” she says.
Speaking to The Better India, Rishabh Jalan, CEO and co-founder of Last Journey — a separate vertical under the gifting giants Ferns and Petals — explains that theirs is a “tech-enabled, end-to-end deathcare and funeral service provider”.
“We take care of every aspect, from a mortuary ambulance to the cremation ground and prayer meeting hall and its decor, so families can grieve in solace without the hassle of making arrangements. We also take care of domestic and international cargo of a body along with body embalming through a government-certified doctor; so that members away from their families need not worry about being able to pay their last respects. We also aim to educate and spread awareness about the availability of such services so that people can benefit from credible and organised services in their time of need,” he says.
Upgrading the death care industry
Back in February 2019, someone close to Rishabh’s family had passed away. Following this event, he shared a poignant conversation with his uncle who spoke of all the difficulties associated with organising funeral arrangements in India.
“My take from that conversation was that only if there was a set mechanism for mourning families, no one would have to go through such a plight again. Our sole purpose is giving families the time and comfort to grieve in solace without having to worry about making arrangements. In India, the current death care infrastructure is stagnant with a huge scope for improvement. Fundamental issues such as hygiene, amenities for grieving families, and furnace and chimney systems are some of the major areas that require upgradation,” says Rishabh.
“Over the years, a major issue within the India death-care sector has been local informal syndicates who have set up monopolies. They often subject families to an obnoxious amount of money to avail services. There have also been many cases of pandits or purohits seeking bizarre monetary remunerations, or at times materials in the name of dakshina (donation),” he adds.
India is a land of diverse cultures and traditions and every family has different ways to conduct the last-rites of their loved one. “So, when it comes to arranging all the things in adherence to their cultural preferences, it is a difficult task since all these things are sourced from different vendors and places. As an ‘end-to-end’ funeral service provider, we are able to provide the customer everything in accordance to their nuanced requirements,” claims Rishabh.
Another factor he believes has been completely absent from the sector is empathy. “We train our representatives to properly communicate and establish a good rapport with grieving families so that they are comfortable in asking whatever they need,” he adds.
In August 2022, Last Journey unveiled a “state of the art” crematorium in south east Delhi’s Sarai Kale Khan area with the support of Municipal Corporation of Delhi. Spread across 1.5 acres, the crematorium contains 25 pyres, a CNG furnace and two electric furnaces. “During COVID, we realised the dire need for a more standardised death care infrastructure,” says Rishabh.
Last Journey has a smart slot allocation system that enables them to coordinate and book the nearest burial/cremation ground. “With a widespread network of vendors who work on a standard operating procedure, we are able to ensure that families are not being taken advantage of or hassled with obnoxious amounts of money,” he claims.
They have also deployed a Funeral Waste Management System that keeps the ground clean and recycles organic waste materials into organic manure.
“At Last Journey, we are leveraging technology with a bilateral approach wherein both vendor management is kept in check resulting in a highly standardised modus operandi. On the other hand, we have been able to take things online making them much more accessible to the masses. Being a one-stop solution for all funeral-related services across different religious faiths, we are able to reach and deliver to the customer within hours — this is crucial since deathcare is a very need-based and time-sensitive sector,” claims Rishabh.
“To put things into perspective, what tends to happen is that if someone needs a freezer box, mortuary ambulance, priest, booking at a crematorium or a few other items for the last rites, they would end up making making 10 calls to 10 different vendors and haggle over price and delivery time. With Last Journey, everything is arranged without the hassle,” he adds.
Their basic set of services starts from around Rs 20,000, but this varies since different customers have different needs and some wish to omit or add a few services.
“So, we have kept a very flexible range, which allows us to give people the best in class services. The cost of international repatriations is, however, dictated by currency differentiation. For example, the cost of repatriation from a country like the USA is relatively more than that of Africa,” he says.
“If you were to get the services we provide from unorganised players, the cost is pretty much on the same tangent. The difference, however, comes from the quality of work,” he adds.
Since its inception, Last Journey has been completely bootstrapped. Currently, they are in touch with some investors for the first funding round that will enable them to scale up further, improve their market penetration and install more advanced machinery.
“Meanwhile, in the past financial year, we have served 6,000-7,000 cases in Bengaluru; about 8,000 in Delhi; 4,000 in Mumbai; and another 4,000 in Hyderabad. Other cities such as Chennai, Indore, Dehradun, Pune, Rishikesh, Ahmedabad, and Lucknow have also accounted for around 7,000-8,000 cases,” claims Rishabh.
A key facet of this venture’s objective is to improve ‘death literacy’ among Indians. Death literacy helps us understand and act upon our end-of-life and deathcare options.
“Our understanding and knowledge of loss, grief, death and dying has never been more critical. For Indians, especially the younger generation, it is very important to understand death literacy since they will soon come to understand the need for such services, and how they can make quick and right decisions without getting exploited by bad faith players. We also need more open and honest conversations about topics like dealing with grief and bereavement,” he says.
Swati recalls, “It was very difficult to source items like good quality logs. Without Last Journey, I wouldn’t have been able to manage all these arrangements. I would recommend them for people who are alone or helpless living in metro cities and need to arrange funerals for their loved ones.”
(Edited by Divya Sethu)
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