People hurry past the Thrikkakara municipality crematorium at Athani at night, lest they disturb the spirits of the deceased. Death and the departed, however, hold no mystery for 48-year-old Selina Michael, caretaker of the crematorium.
For the last eight years, Selina has been taking care of business at the crematorium.
She keeps the grounds clean, arranges firewood for cremation, makes sure the bodies burn properly, and even performs a few rituals when required. Death, for her, is a daily affair.
Always on call
Selina lives close to the crematorium grounds and is on call throughout the day. “There is no time for death to strike. We keep a pyre ready at all times. The second pyre here can be set up as soon as we receive a call.”
Selina first began attending to cremations after the man then running the crematorium hired her as a labourer for the construction of his house. “I had been working as a labourer and this man lived near my house, so he hired me too on the site.” She once stepped in to carry out a cremation when he wasn’t available. Afterwards, she began doing it regularly for wages of Rs.200 per cremation.
Her brothers weren’t happy with her choice of work. “But I had to take care of my family. My husband left me when my elder daughter was only eight. I worked hard to raise my children. I make more money doing this than I did as a labourer,” she says.
‘Not a popular choice’
Three years ago, Selina completely took over the management of the crematorium. She bid for the rights to operate the municipality crematorium and take care of its grounds. “I was the only bidder this time. You don’t make a lot of money and this is not a popular choice for people,” she says.
The work isn’t easy either. “You have to be here and make sure there is enough firewood. If a person has died after long illness and has consumed a lot of medicines, the body takes longer to burn and spurts out some chemicals. It takes a long time to heal if that liquid burns your skin,” she says.
Accompanying Selina at work is her granddaughter, four-year-old Nandana. As Selina gathers firewood to keep a pyre ready, Nandana plays with a small clay vessel at a corner of the crematorium. “Her mother went off to work nine months after she was born and I would take care of her during the day. She would sit here and play while I went about my work,” says Selina.
Nandana, who starts school in June, insists she is not afraid of the building and the grounds.