Even unclaimed and decomposing bodies deserve a dignified send-off, say members of the Thozhar Trust, who have performed more than 1,500 funerals.

When P. Shanthakumar recently received the CNN-IBN Real Heroes Award for social welfare from Mukesh and Nita Ambani, members of the Thozhar Trust were overcome with joy. It was recognition of the unusual work they have been doing since 2004.

Not many would have taken the responsibility of according unclaimed bodies a dignified funeral, especially when they themselves just about managed to eke out a living. But, these thozhars have been doing just that. S. Sampath Kumar, a member of the trust, recalls seeing how unclaimed dead bodies were dealt with during their disposal. “They were carelessly piled on a cart, limbs trailing the ground.”   

Soon, this group of friends — flower decorator Shanthakumar, flower sellers Ibrahim and Sampath Kumar, flower exporter K.R. Jeevanandham and lathe operator P. Annadurai — decided to take up burial of unclaimed bodies following the advice of Senthil Kumar, a doctor. They formed the Thozhar Trust. On April 1, 2004, they buried four bodies. Today, that number has crossed 1,500.

“Dead children abandoned by parents who fear the funeral expenses; traumatised minors helpless after their father's death; a shell-shocked pregnant girl who lost her husband; and bodies that lie for months in the mortuary — we've seen them all,” says Shanthakumar.

All these years, the members have managed with personal funds, voluntary donations, interest from the gift of Rs. 5 lakh from Roshni (a voluntary organisation), the ambulance from Lions Club of Coimbatore New Central and the Rs. 10,000 donated by inmates of the central prison. The Real Heroes purse of Rs. 5 lakh will add to their corpus. “We need just 100 people to donate Rs. 2,000 each (enough for two funerals), every year, to keep our work going,” says Shanthakumar.

Changing society

“We expected to remove less than 10 bodies a year. We now do nearly 300 a year. This number reflects what we've become as a society. People just don't care anymore. Sometimes, they do, but don't have the resources to perform a funeral,” says Annadurai, Shanthakumar's brother.

To avoid dealing with abandoned bodies, Thozhar asks underprivileged families to contact them if they can't afford a funeral. “We tell them to stay with us. It's not fair that someone leaves the world with no loved one nearby,” says Shanthakumar. Every funeral costs Thozhar Rs. 800 — this includes the cost of digging a grave, a shroud and a garland/ wreath. Sometimes, on request, religious rituals are performed. It adds to the cost, but we manage, they say.

The contrast between the scent of the flower market and the stench of the mortuary is stark. But, the friends have learnt to inhabit the two different worlds. “Luckily, our families support us. People have realised we are doing something noble, and need not be smirked at,” says Annadurai.

When they decided to open their doors to women, college students and transgenders, Jeevanandham recalls that Shanthakumar's wife Latha and his wife Indira were the first women to volunteer. The friends say they wanted the public to be a part of this. They roped in students because they wanted to sensitise them to look after their parents when they grew old. The transgenders were very enthusiastic — the only people who voluntarily brought garlands for the dead.

The group now actively promotes blood donation — they have helped arrange 18,000 units of blood. “College students have been very receptive. We just hope that those who receive blood also donate blood. Sometimes, people give us a missed call even when asking for blood!” rues Santhakumar.

The group also promotes organ donation and body donation. “The Coimbatore Medical College Hospital needs 14 to 15 cadavers a year for teaching. So far, we've helped bring in five bodies, and some others have pledged theirs,” he adds.

Over the years, they have forged close bonds with doctors, police personnel and mortuary staff. “The mortuary staff are nothing less than gods. They work and eat there in that stench,” remarks Sampath.

Jeevanandham speaks about how working together has seen the four of them (Ibrahim opted out of the group because of work commitments) transform from casual friends into a tight-knit group that works in sync and understands each other perfectly. Sampath says that after working with Thozhar, “the anger is gone, so has the revulsion”.

After 1,500 funerals, the tears have dried up. But some cases still have the power to move. “There was this person from Vadugapalayam near Pollachi. His two daughters brought him to the Government Hospital, but he died. Hearing the news, their two minor sisters who were working in the city ran in. Before the burial, they piled on his body and cried. It was a strange feeling — after years of burying unclaimed bodies, we'd forgotten what a cry sounded like!”

Action plan

Implement ban on cowdung powder

Thozhar Trust next wants to ensure that cowdung powder, used by many to commit suicide, is not stocked in shops. Though banned, this hazardous chemical is notoriously easy to procure. It is not expensive too. “It costs as little as Rs. 3 or Rs. 5 to take a life. We've implemented so many other bans. Why not this?” asks Annadurai.

Catch them young

The group has been visiting educational institutions and interacting with school children to teach them the importance of giving back to society.

Teach the offenders

When caught over-speeding, offenders must be left for half-an-hour in the Government Hospital's accident/emergency room, says Annadurai. “They will never overspeed after seeing the kind of injuries people come in with.”

If you want to help the Thozhar Trust or be a part of it, call 98422-67700, 98422-51523, 98650-21541 and 97883-35410.