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A dignified sendoff

A job that no one else wants S. Kanthavelan (seated), Founder of Aathma Public Charitable Trust, and his team ( from left) S. Manikandan, T. Prabhu, S.V. Nandagopal and G. Mohan Ram perform the last rites for unclaimed bodies Photo: M. Periasamy   | Photo Credit: M_PERIASAMY

Aravan Medai in Singanallur is where S. Kanthavelan first encountered an unclaimed dead body. “An old man had died there and no one had noticed for two days. When the cops came, I helped them remove the decomposed body. I realised then that these unclaimed dead have no one to give them a decent burial,” he says.

This led Kanthavelan to start the Aathma Public Charitable Trust along with S. Manikandan. Later, T. Prabhu, G. Mohan Ram and S.V. Nandagopal joined him. “In the last 13 years, we have buried 1450 unclaimed dead bodies from all over Tamil Nadu,” he says and shows a file that has details of every single burial with photographs.

“Humanity has died,” he rues. “At Aravan Medai alone we have removed 45 dead bodies and it is mostly the elderly in their 70s abandoned by families. The sons bring them from places like Erode, Salem and Dharmapuri and leave them here. The old people have no clue where they are and start begging before death claims them.”

The Aathma Trust has no outside funding and it is the volunteers who keep aside a part of their earnings to meet the expenses which runs to over Rs. 30,000 in a month. They take up an unclaimed body for burial after clearance from the police. “Even if the public calls us we ask them to inform the nearby police station first. We also get the death certificate of the deceased for our file. Every month, we receive over 20 bodies. Now, some are taken up Coimbatore Medical College Hospital. But still we get over 10 bodies a month. Mr. Kennedy of Annai Ambulance sends his vehicle whenever we call for help,” says Kanthavelan.

They get requests from homes for the aged, and organisations for HIV affected patients. The police often calls them to remove bodies found on railway tracks. something no one wants to do, says Kanthavelan. They have cleared bodies from drains and dump yards too.

Says Manikandan who works as a driver, “In the initial days, we buried over eight dead bodies in a day and I had to bathe that many times a day as my conservative family wouldn’t let me in. But we ensure that such things don’t come in the way of our service.”

While the trust members have also done tree planting, etc., they found there were many others doing that. “But no one wants to touch an unclaimed dead body. We wanted to be of help to those aatmas,” says Kanthavelan who runs a fabrication company. “I have often lost business as I had my hands are full with Aathma work. But, I go on. My mother K. Rukmani who worked as a domestic help inspires me to do service. My wife R. Akilandeswari also encourages me.”

Public apathy is what worries them more than anything else. “An old man from a royal family in Neikkarapatti in Palani was abandoned by his family near the Government Hospital. He begged there and finally fell into the Vaalankulam and died. No one turned up to claim him. Another old lady from a posh apartment vanished for over a week and she was traced somewhere near Saravanampatti. Her body was under a tree for over a week and no one noticed.”

A son refused to perform the last rites of his father. “Finally, we had to perform the last rites. We have also removed a body of a young woman from the Satyamangalam forest who was murdered by her husband. Each unclaimed dead body has a disturbing story behind it”, he says.

They mention that the burial ground at Singanallur has thorny bushes and is infested with poisonous snakes and mosquitoes. Nandagopal, an insurance expert, says that facilities like water supply, electricity, and a gate would help. “There are stray dogs and there is no facility to clean ourselves after the burial. We continue our service despite the setbacks as we want to spread the word about compassion for your fellow being.”

Aathma Trust hopes to buy a freezer box. They want the officials to support them and help avoid delays while handing over the dead body. “We are also working on a website and want to set up a Facebook page soon to spread awareness,” says G. Mohan Ram, the latest entrant to the team. Prabhu, who works with a private company, volunteers in the morning and evening hours, as it is satisfying.

Aathma Trust also conducts traffic awareness in schools regularly and talk about safe travel on trains. They have introduced cash prizes and silver cups to girl students at the Government Girls High School in Ondipudur. They volunteered during the Chennai floods too.

Says an emotional Kanthavelan, “After every burial, I pray that this is the last unclaimed body I will encounter. I hope my prayers are answered some day”


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Printable version | Jul 22, 2021 5:26:31 AM | https://www.thehindu.com/features/metroplus/A-dignified-sendoff/article16675483.ece

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