Burying 1,000 Bodies and Loads of Prejudice

Photo: TMMK.

“We were worried that our father would not be treated well in death.”

Two months after Panchanathan Subramaniam’s demise, his son S. Ramesh still grieves: “When we got him admitted to Thanjavur government hospital with symptoms of Covid-19, we never imagined we would take him back lifeless.”

More so since 68-year-old Subramaniam, who retired years ago from a clerical position in the Indian Army, had no major health complaints. He was proud of his association with the military “and took good care of his fitness. He never missed his daily walks and was strict about his diet,” explains Ramesh, 40, a native of Tamil Nadu’s Kumbakonam town. “Even while admitting him to hospital, we thought he would be cured.”

But when Subramaniam passed away on August 14, Ramesh and his family were distraught – and not just because they had lost him. They had seen how the funerals of Covid-19 victims were stigmatised in the state and were perplexed about what to do next. “We received little support from friends and relatives,” says Ramesh. “I guess that is understandable because a corona death is a cause of huge concern.”

That was when some very practical help came from an unexpected quarter – the Tamilnadu Muslim Munnetra Kazhagam – a non-governmental organisation in the state. Shortly after Subramaniam’s passing, six TMMK volunteers showed up to assist the family – right from receiving the body at the hospital, to conducting a dignified burial for him (some Hindu communities bury rather than cremate their dead) at their hometown of Kumbakonam.

For the family it was an extraordinary stroke of luck. For the TMMK, Subramaniam’s was just one of some 1,100 funerals they have conducted across Tamil Nadu and Puducherry since late March. Funerals done regardless of the community or caste of the deceased – with last rites conducted in accordance with the religious traditions and wishes of the family. With confirmed Covid-19 deaths, the TMMK followed local administration protocols of burial in pits eight feet deep.

The fear accompanying the virus and the dislocation coming in with the lockdown meant that, very often, workers were and are unavailable at graveyards and cremation grounds. Ambulances are hard to hire, and bereaved families have suffered great costs, prejudice, and harassment. One of the most infamous cases being that of Dr. Simon Hercules, 55-year-old neurosurgeon, who died on April 19 – perhaps the first doctor in Tamil Nadu to succumb to Covid-19.

His family was turned away from the burial ground in Chennai’s Kilpauk locality by about 100 people gathered there. His body was then taken to the Velangadu cemetery in Anna Nagar, some six kilometres away. There, a mob attacked the ambulance, its driver, and a sanitation worker with sticks and stones. Finally, Dr. Simon’s friends, Dr. Pradeep Kumar and two others, managed to quietly bury him early next morning – without a single member of his family present – amid fear for their own lives.

In that vitiated atmosphere, the TMMK’s intervention has meant a lot to those 1,100 families.

“We were frantic and hopeless when calling the TMMK number that a relative in Chennai gave me,” says Ramesh.

“All we wanted was an ambulance, but they actually took care of everything. We did not want our father to suffer indignity in death. He was a man of self-esteem. Thankfully, the TMMK helped keep that intact.”

Remarkably, not even one of the 1,100 funerals they conducted – including around 100 non-Covid deaths – went awry in any way.

“As someone associated with the volunteers of TMMK for six years now, I am not surprised” says Dr. N. Aravindha Babu, cancer specialist and a professor with the Sree Balaji Dental College and Hospital, Chennai. Their volunteers have donated blood and raised money for many cancer surgeries, he adds. Dr. Babu, who lives in the city’s Adambakkam locality, says he discovered this side of the TMMK “when an abandoned old lady died, probably of hunger” in his neighbourhood, during the lockdown at its most intense in April.

“I was upset, and thought she deserved a decent burial,” recalls Dr. Babu. TMMK volunteers turned up, arranged for a post-mortem, organised the funeral and followed it up till they got a death certificate. This was important also “because they established that it was a non-Covid fatality and helped get a certificate from the local police station. It was a well-meaning gesture.”

That was also when Dr. Babu learned that the organisation had been conducting dignified burials for abandoned, unclaimed bodies for over eight years. “It was astounding… they care about the dignity of a human being after death, irrespective of the person’s background.”

“We buried a few Covid-19 victims early on,” says M. H. Jawahirullah, former MLA and TMMK state president. “But we had no planned approach to it till we came across the tragedy of Dr. Simon’s death and the attack on his family. Covid deaths were treated with fear and hatred by society, and we had to do something about it.”

They decided they would conduct funerals “according to the practices of whichever religion the dead persons belonged to. The idea is to send them off with dignity. How could that happen if their beliefs are not respected?” asks Jawahirullah.

The TMMK’s volunteers are low-profile men almost entirely from the 22-40 age group. They neither seek nor are comfortable with publicity – quite understandable, given the public mood towards health workers dealing with Covid-19 patients and victims. There are nearly 1,000 such volunteers across the state. And most, says Chennai-based Khaleel Rahman, who heads the TMMK’s medical wing, are street vendors or petty shop owners like himself.

“Most of us lead a hand to mouth existence,” says Rahman. “Very few might be from a slightly better background.”

Respect for their service comes from many quarters. “Did you see the funeral video purportedly of a Union minister?” asks G.V. Adhiyamaan of Gobichettipalayam town in Erode district. “Even if he was a political adversary [to the DMK], the way his body was tossed into the pit, and then someone climbing down to turn it over, left me pained.” Adhiyamaan’s 86-year-old father G.P. Venkitu, a former DMK MLA who had participated in the anti-Hindi agitations of the 1960s, also fell to Covid-19 on September 23.

‘I have been part of this medical team for eight years now. With Covid, our stress has increased, but when people express their gratitude, nothing else matters’

His family ran into problems when the government service said no ambulance was available for inter-district transportation that day. “My father was in a Coimbatore hospital and we had to take him back to Gobichettipalayam,” says Adhiyamaan. “That is when the TMMK stepped in and took care of everything, like a family.”

Each funeral entails an elaborate process. Yet, right from stepping in to do paperwork at hospitals to coordinating with relatives in conducting a funeral, the volunteers take just 3-4 hours to complete one. “For our own administrative purposes we view Tamil Nadu as having 56 districts [officially, there are 38], in each of which we have a medical service wing with a secretary. Every district has 2-3 teams of 6-8 volunteers each,” says Khaleel Rahman.

“It is a great service to humanity, and in discharging it, the volunteers scrupulously follow the protocol in every case,” says P. Vijayakumar, superintendent of police, Tirupattur district. “For instance, with Covid deaths they ensure the pit is eight feet deep – and wear proper PPE suits for the funeral. Our district has seen over 100 deaths, of which the TMMK has handled at least 40 per cent.” While precise ratios are unclear, the 1,100 funerals seem diversely spread across those of Hindu, Muslim, Christian and other faiths.

In areas where they are active, this volunteer effort has helped in creating public awareness about the virus – and in lowering panic levels.

“That panic arises from the idea that dead bodies spread the infection. They don’t,” says Dr. Anirban Mitra, Kolkata-based molecular biologist and teacher. “It is a biochemical reality that a dead body cannot produce new viruses, particularly one released from a hospital 4-5 hours after death. Since such bodies do not breathe, chances of droplet infection from the deceased are non-existent. Only when a body has fluids like saliva, phlegm, and blood oozing out – those could be a source of virus. Which makes proper cremation or burial without delay even more important.

“If the victim has died at home, then the virus could still be active in the residence which then has to come under strict quarantine,” warns Dr. Mitra. “And the funeral must be done by authorities competent and equipped to handle that.”

The TMMK seems to be coming to the rescue of stressed out authorities and administrations.

What do these funerals cost? “It ranges from 1,000 to 11,000 rupees, depending on the rituals followed, rent for a JCB machine to dig the pit and so on,” says Rahman. “In Covid-deaths, for those families which can afford these expenses, we contribute our physical labour. If a family can afford nothing, we raise money among ourselves and do it.” The PPE kits are sponsored by either local administrations or philanthropists.

The group knows that Covid deaths warrant more precautions. “All team members wear PPE suits and conduct funerals on a rotational basis – no single team does more than one at a time. After a funeral, the volunteers quarantine themselves for a few days before returning to their homes.” They are also given immunity boosters and undergo mandatory check-ups. “Obviously, those testing Covid positive are relieved of this work,” says Jawahirullah.

The teams mostly get information about distressed families from local health inspectors or hospitals. N. Mani, former president of Banavaram panchayat in Arakkonam block of Ranipet district, cites this example: “Pushpa, a Christian woman from our village, had died of Covid and the family couldn’t handle it. That was when the health inspector told me of the TMMK. The volunteers came within an hour and took control. They are courageous, and cautious.”

Besides, says Rahman, “Every police station in Tamil Nadu has our numbers, so in case of abandoned bodies they can call us, and we take care of the rest.”

All their efforts involve great personal risks and costs. For 41-year old Abdul Rahim, who has been a member of about 25 of 27 Covid-funeral teams in Karaikkal district of the neighbouring Puducherry union territory since March, it means being deprived of his six-year old son’s company. “I have been part of this medical team for eight years now. With Covid, our stress has increased, but when people express their gratitude, nothing else matters. I have to stay away from my family for at least a week after each funeral. That upsets them, but I really can’t risk their well-being.”

Why do TMMK volunteers do this?

Jawahirullah calls it fard kifaya (obligatory individual duty in Arabic). “In Islam, the funeral is a compulsory obligation of society. If one individual or a group of individuals does it, it means the entire society has fulfilled its duty. If nobody comes forward to do it, then everybody is a sinner. Irrespective of caste or creed, we believe conducting these funerals is our duty.”

Their volunteers, he says, have been involved in humanitarian activities since the TMMK’s inception in 1995. “They donate blood on a regular basis and operate ambulances offering free services for people in need. They were active during natural disasters including the tsunami and the Chennai floods.”

Jawahirullah, also the president of the Manithaneya Makkal Katchi, a political party, says: “We do this as Tamil people; we believe we should help others in distress. The Tamil Nadu public has mostly approved our efforts.” After a deep pause, he adds: “Of course, when you are a minority, it becomes an additional imperative and responsibility to do this work. But our motive is just to serve those in need.”

This report was first published by PARI.