The job is overwhelming as the dead keep coming: Crematorium workers

The workers at Thathaneri crematorium in Madurai handle more than 50 bodies a day.  

In the last 15 years of their working in Madurai’s cremation grounds, many undertakers can’t remember cremating more than five to eight bodies in a day. But in the last three weeks, the second wave of the COVID-19 pandemic has overwhelmed them. A team of dozen workers have been doing 24-hour shift on alternate days at the city’s biggest crematorium in Thathaneri.

“Three weeks ago, there were 15-20 bodies a day. Now, it is more than 50, as each ambulance brings three bodies,” says A. Venkatesh, 44, one of the registrars.

By the time the bodies reach the crematorium, the scene gets visceral. There is a crowd of people, mostly kin, grieving - some silently, some loudly.

“We are exhausted, but try not to get upset. This time round it is lot many people. I want this to end soon,” Mr. Venkatesh says. His reticent colleague E. Babu says he derives his sense of calm from the thought that he is doing a job that others dread. But he fears that the task of cremating these many bodies may affect their mental health.

Only two family members are allowed into the crematorium. The face of the deceased is uncovered for those who wish to have a last look. Howls of anguish rise and mingle with chanting of slokas. “Those left behind are unable to control their emotions, many are out of focus and we have to handle them gently,” says Mr. Venkatesh.

The two electric chambers at Thathaneri work simultaneously.

Had it not been for the good Samaritans, the crematorium workers would have found it extremely difficult to dispose of the bodies. Social worker S. Manikandan, who helps in the last rites of abandoned elders, was the first to donate a carton of PPE suits, masks, gloves and sanitisers for the crematorium staff when the COVID deaths began to spike. “I was reading about what’s happening in other cities and felt the need to keep the crematorium workers safe,” he says.

With help from sponsors, he has so far donated more than 2,000 PPE kits that are used not only by the COVID-duty staff but also the mourners. The Corporation should take care of the health of the crematorium staff but they are often forgotten and sidelined. The workers earn not more than ₹3,000 to ₹5,000 a month and cannot afford a PPE kit for daily use with their income. But they are doing much more than what is required of their job.

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Printable version | Jun 17, 2021 11:01:32 AM |

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