Monday 3 May 2021

Death is the only truth - watching India's funeral pyres burn

The grim business of organising mass cremations offers a glimpse of the deadly trail left by COVID-19
By Aman Sethi, Published The Straits Times, 3 May 2021

NEW DELHI (NYTIMES) - The first 36 corpses were placed in the designated concrete cremation pits and set ablaze by 10 in the morning. After that, all the extra bodies went to the muddy parking lot, for a mass ceremony later.

Last Wednesday, ambulances doubling up as hearses lined up along the narrow street outside the Ghazipur crematory, on the city's eastern border. There were no cremation pits in the parking lot, so hospital attendants in protective equipment carried out the dead and placed them near the scorch marks left behind by the previous day's pyres.

Mr Ram Karan Mishra, the presiding priest of the parking lot, walked among the corpses unmasked and unafraid. "If I fall sick and die, I will go to heaven," he said, before paraphrasing a popular reading of Hindu scripture: "Death is the only truth."

It is an aphorism that India's government would do well to remember. Two months ago, the ruling party claimed that the country had defeated Covid-19. Today, a deadly second wave of the coronavirus ravages India. Crippling shortages of oxygen and hospital beds have resulted in many deaths, including that of a former ambassador who died in his car while waiting for care for hours outside a fancy private clinic.

The chief minister of Uttar Pradesh, India's most populous state and one of its poorest, has asked officials to seize the property of people he accuses of "spreading rumours" about shortages on social media. (The police in Amethi, a town in northern India, reportedly brought criminal charges against one man for appealing on Twitter for an oxygen bottle for his sick grandfather.) The Indian government has ordered Twitter, Facebook and Instagram to take down dozens of posts criticising its handling of the pandemic.

Counting the dead

But mass cremations have captured what epidemiologists call "excess mortality" in gruesome detail. Everyone I know has lost someone to the virus. Many have lost several members of their family.

But while you are in lockdown, the dead do not feel dead as much as disappeared. So when my father called me last Tuesday to say that his uncle had died of Covid-19, that the uncle's whole family was ill with the disease and that a cousin of my father's was in an intensive care unit (ICU), I sensed the onset of a familiar numbness.

"I might go out for a drive," I mumbled vaguely to my wife. But as I got into my car the next morning and drove out to several crematories, I realised I just wanted to feel something.

The parking lot in Ghazipur is so small and the bodies are so closely packed that the pyres can be lit only all at once. So the corpses are placed on individual pyres through the day and then ignited in one big blaze in the evening. (Other crematories, especially those with pyres powered by electricity or gas, burn corpses from morning to sundown.)

Mr Mishra, the priest, told me that for the past 10 days, the crematory's staff had been burning between 40 and 50 bodies every day in a space no larger than two tennis courts.

A cremation site is a mostly male space. Many Hindus still believe that only a son has the right to light his parent's funeral pyre. At Ghazipur, small groups of young men briefly put their grief on hold to divide themselves into teams and tend to various tasks. One group runs off to stand in the queue to register the corpse of their loved one. Another dashes to the shed to get its allotted share of wood before all the good pieces run out. A third rushes with the body to reserve a spot on which to build a pyre. Everything in this pandemic - medicines, oxygen, ventilators, hospital beds - has been marked by scarcity born of the government's failure to plan for and procure essential supplies. The crematory is no different.

Last Wednesday, Ms Malvika Parakh, one of the few women at Ghazipur, stood alone amid this frenzy, the body of her father, Dr Dattaraj Bhalchandra Parakh, at her feet. He was a plant pathologist at India's National Bureau of Plant Genetic Resources and was 65 years old when he died of Covid-19. He needed an ICU bed with a ventilator, but she could organise only a hospital bed with an oxygen cylinder.

Ms Parakh's mother died a decade ago; most of her other relatives had Covid-19. A family member who had escorted her father's body from the hospital morgue to the crematory had suddenly felt sick there. So here she was alone, a 32-year-old clinical psychologist standing by her father's corpse in a parking lot-turned-crematory, trying to make sense of it all.

"It's like one of those movies in which the world has been attacked, and there are bodies everywhere," she said, as she looked at the rows and rows and rows and rows of pyres in various stages of completion. "You wait for the superhero to come and save everyone. Only in this case, there is no superhero."

The 'WhatsApp funeral'

Bikki, a young mortuary assistant at a private hospital, had told me about a new type of funeral: the "WhatsApp funeral". (He would not give his full name because he is not supposed to talk to journalists.)

When Covid-19 patients in the ICU breathe their last breath, Bikki wheels the body down to the morgue. There, he carefully wraps the corpse in a mortuary sheet, then in a plastic sheet, and then in the distinctive white tarp that marks this death as a Covid-19 case. He secures everything with white micropore surgical tape. "When a family member comes, we quickly unwrap the head so they can peek at the face and identify the body," Bikki said.

"Often, an immediate family member is either stranded abroad or isolated with Covid-19, so we put on a WhatsApp video call and show them the face." Then Bikki and his team place the body in an ambulance and accompany it to the crematory.

I met Bikki and his colleagues at the crematory in Sarai Kale Khan, also in the city's east, before heading to Ghazipur. As we spoke, construction workers used cement and red brick to quickly build human-size platforms just outside the crematory's walls. "They can only do 10 bodies at a time inside the crematory," Bikki said. "They are building space for another 50."

One of Bikki's attendants said that every night for the past week, he had dreamed of the faces of the dead passing before his eyes in an endless parade. "I'm pulling back the tarp, and I'm seeing their faces," he said. "I've forgotten their names, but I'm seeing their faces."

Preparing the pyres

It was now a little after 3pm at Ghazipur, and most of the pyres had been built. Wood is strictly rationed, so mourners began by fashioning what looked like a makeshift stretcher: First three short, heavy logs were laid on the ground parallel to one another; then longer, narrower planks were put on top, perpendicular to the logs. Once the body was placed on the stretcher, mourners arranged sticks upright around it in a sort of wooden tent and stuffed that with bales of dry straw.

The whole process took about 20 minutes. From then until the evening, mourners would flit back and forth like birds building a nest: They would pick up stray bits of straw, a length of broken bamboo, a gnarled knot of wood that someone had discarded, and fit them into the gaps in the pyre.

A few pyres, including the one for Ms Parakh's father, were yet to be assembled. She was on her phone with relatives, trying to find someone who could help. A caretaker of the family's was on his way. "He's been with us for over 20 years," she said. "So the loss is as much his as ours."

Things moved faster once the caretaker arrived; soon, the pyre was built.

It was almost five in the evening now, and the parking lot looked like a small, congested village of low, pointy-roofed homes. Mr Mishra, the priest, made his way through the pyres chanting hymns for the dead.

A young woman sat weeping into the elbow of her protective suit. "My parents are waiting outside," she told me, pointing to one wooden structure among the others. "It's my husband. My husband. That's my husband."

The first pyre was lit, then another, and another. Slowly the sound of chants and prayers was silenced by the crackling of flames burning through dry wood. The heat rose in gusts, then in waves and then in a steady shimmering wall. The fires blazing, I thought of everyone my family and friends had lost over the past year, all the funerals we could not attend, all the grief this city carries.

Ms Parakh stood before her father's pyre, talking into what looked like a WhatsApp group call on her phone.

Nearby, a middle-aged man in a striped T-shirt told me, pointing at a pyramid of flames: "That's my mother. Non-Covid-19 case. It is a pity that she had to be cremated in the middle of all of this."

He had another complaint: "Don't mind, but the media is making it seem like bodies are being burned everywhere all the time to show the government in a bad light."

Are we not in a parking lot among 50 burning pyres? I asked him. "Yes," he replied, "but the media should say, 'These pyres are lit all at once, only once a day,' so people get the correct impression."

"Death is the only truth," I said. "Death is the only truth," he said.

The blaze continued for several hours. Small groups of mourners began to leave, their eyes glistening with tears held back through the fear, the frustration, the heartbreak, the exhaustion, the heat, the horror and the sorrow. Ms Parakh and her caretaker walked out, hailed down an auto-rickshaw and went home to the house she had once shared with her father.

"Remember to come by eight tomorrow morning to collect the ashes," Mr Mishra told everyone. "We need to clear up in preparation for tomorrow's cremations."

Aman Sethi is a journalist based in New Delhi and author of A Free Man: A True Story Of Life And Death In Delhi.

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