Every ambulance siren fell silent as it entered the vicinity of ‘Antim Niwas’, the sole facility in the district set aside for the cremation of COVID victims, as a hearse here on Saturday.
Family members prohibited from touching COVID-infected bodies wailed inconsolably when allowed a final view of the mortal remains of their loved ones tucked away behind locked vehicular doors and tightly shut windows.
One member allowed
Only one PPE kit-clad member from such groups would be allowed to observe the CNG cremation of a relative when their turn came, by which time, more ambulances would line up.
Across from the CNG crematorium and funeral pyres created on the ground since the adjacent elevated platforms were occupied in between, kin of the non-COVID dead desperately sought help from strangers to get bodies down onto biers assuring bystanders that they were safe to touch.
“She had got a bed in a government hospital just last evening and was okay at night before suddenly passing away this morning. We allowed the women from our family a last look, no matter how painful it was for them, before the CNG cremation for the sake of closure,” said Vinod Kumar from Hisar whose 45-year-old COVID-positive cousin’s body underwent CNG cremation.
“A last look was both the least and most that we as family members could have done since such a body cannot be touched,” Mr. Kumar added.
According to a staff member who requested that he not be named, cremations were being carried out starting as early as 4 a.m. till dusk every day over the last week leaving those employed at the cremation ground no option except staying back on the premises at night.
“We have been sleeping here since the beginning of this week due to the sheer flood of cremations — both COVID and non-COVID — that is happening here,” a staffer said.
“Even those who live nearby stay back because they don’t want to infect their family members just in case something happens to them while handling a COVID patient’s body,” he said.
Official data released by the district administration recorded a jump in the total number of COVID deaths since the pandemic began from 106 on Monday to 143 till now.
Three deaths were recorded on Monday, eight on Tuesday, four on Wednesday, 11 on Thursday, nine on Friday and six till three pm on Saturday.
“I have some health complications so I have decided not to go inside,” said Manu Gupta as he viewed the funeral pyre burn of his COVID-afflicted aunt, who was in her 50s, through iron grills installed along the walled periphery of the facility.
“This disease has forced dehumanization on people like me; you cannot even bid goodbye to someone with whom you built an affectionate relationship over decades,” he also said.
Parmanand Chauhan, whose 47-year-old cousin lost her battle to COVID on Friday night after a week of hospitalization, was discussing the future of his mentally-challenged niece next to her mother’s funeral pyre.
“My cousin’s husband passed away several years ago and she was the sole guardian of her 16-year-old daughter. What concerns us is not only her future but also saving her from getting infected by COVID due to her condition,” he said.
Meanwhile, at the Muslim burial ground down the road from the cremation ground, relatives of both COVID and non-COVID patients, according to its staffers, had been avoiding touching the bodies before and during their last rites.
“We have seen around 10 burials here since the beginning of the pandemic,” said Mohammad Ishtiaq, the caretaker of the facility. “There was such largescale migration during last year’s lockdown that people who took the elderly members of their families back to their respective villages then chose to keep them there,” he said.
Mahesh Saxena of the Noida Lok Manch, an NGO which manages the Antim Niwas cremation facility, issued an appeal that only bodies of COVID patients be brought to it for last rites to be carried out as per COVID protocol.
The Noida Authority, Mr. Saxena stated, had made a decision in this regard on Friday but, apparently due to lack of adequate information, people from Greater Noida as well as Delhi in some cases had brought non-COVID bodies to the facility for cremation.