In Mumbai's crematoriums, exhausted workers pull on to earn a living despite psychological stress, fear of COVID-19

While managing the mourners, disposing dead bodies and exhausting themselves physically, the workers are overwhelmed emotionally and physiologically too.

Parth MN June 17, 2020 17:20:01 IST
In Mumbai's crematoriums, exhausted workers pull on to earn a living despite psychological stress, fear of COVID-19

Teary-eyed men and women stood under the street lights in a narrow lane leading to the crematorium. They were devastated as they watched two people unload the body of a 55-year old man from the ambulance. They wanted to see his face for one last time.

But Ajit (name changed) had to remain upright, and refuse the family members’ request. He had to abide by the rules even if it appeared heartless. “This is what our life has looked like for the past two and a half months,” he said. “We don’t want to hurt grieving relatives.”

Ajit, 40, works at a crematorium near Shivaji Park in Mumbai. Ever since the outbreak of coronavirus, he said, the frequency of dead bodies has been unprecedented. “We have two electric furnaces here,” he said. “Both of them are always burning. The bodies keep coming round the clock. Sometimes, one ambulance brings in two-three bodies at a time.”

Ajit has worked at various crematoriums in Mumbai over the past 18 years. “I haven’t seen anything like this,” he confessed. “You see death closely when you work at a crematorium. You get immune to it when you work for as long as I have. But the past two and a half months have still been overwhelming.”

He took this reporter into the crematorium’s office to prove his point. Amid the depressing smoky air and pungent odour that pervaded the room, he took out the register. When he read out the numbers, the word overwhelming seemed like an understatement.

On an average, Ajit said, the Shivaji Park crematorium used to get three dead bodies a day, or about 90 per month. However, just in the first 15 days of June, they have had 228 bodies. Only 11 of them were non-COVID deaths.

In other words, the crematorium is dealing with more than 15 dead bodies per day, which is five times the usual count. “There are days when we even get 20 bodies in a day,” Ajit said.

So far, Mumbai has reported more than 60,000 cases and over 3,000 deaths. There are 51 BMC-run crematoriums, and 20 private ones, conducting funerals across the financial capital of India. All of them are overwhelmed. And the workers and operators are overworked.

At a crematorium in Worli — five kilometres from Shivaji Park — one of the two electric furnaces isn’t working. On a drizzly afternoon, three workers, hunched over, carved wood while an operator maintained the register. They flatly refused to speak. “We don’t want to lose our jobs by talking to you,” one of them said. “There are already enough problems in our life.”

The workers at the Worli crematorium hadn’t gone home for three days. They had not even had regular meals. “Some of our colleagues have fallen sick,” he said. “Who would look after the bodies if we leave too?”

Inconsolable families are seen around the crematorium all the time, helplessly waiting for the workers to take the body of their relative. It takes at least 2 hours for the body to burn, for the patients who died due to COVID-19 are wrapped in a proper bag to prevent transmission from the body.

The workers wearing protective kits handle the procedure, and then fumigate and sanitise the furnace after disposing every body, according to the official guidelines.

The BMC’s standard operating procedures say if the test of the deceased turns out to be positive, the body is not to be handed over to the families but taken directly to the crematorium. The protocols do not allow any kind of physical contact with the body if the cause of death is COVID-19. The measures are supposed to avoid transmission via the dead body.

Therefore, rituals that mandate the family members to touch the body are not allowed. They are supposed to maintain at least a metre’s distance and spend limited time at the crematorium.

However, not all of them are in the state to be mindful of these protocols. “Most of them are sensible,” said Ajit. “But some of them break into the crematorium and flout social distancing norms. They want to do the last rites. We can’t manage them beyond a point.”

While managing the mourners, disposing dead bodies and exhausting themselves physically, the workers are overwhelmed emotionally and physiologically too. They are constantly worried about contracting coronavirus themselves.

Last month, when the workers were tested for coronavirus, Ajit’s test turned out to be positive. “I was asymptomatic,” he said. “But I could still have passed it on to my family. I was most worried about that.”

He stays in a small one-room apartment with his wife and two kids. “How do you practice physical distancing in that space?” asked Ajit. “Thankfully I had not passed it on to my family. I was in isolation for two weeks in May and I recovered.”

Even after having tested positive, Ajit is back to work. His family members worry about him. But he doesn’t have an option but to carry on with his work. Earning Rs 30,000 a month, he is the only breadwinner of the family. “When I enter the home, I head directly to the bathroom,” he said. “We sanitise my clothes in hot water and take as many precautions as we can. However, that is all that we can do. At the end of the day, it is a job, and we must do it.”

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