Cast Away: Hyderabad Techies Cremate Bodies as Families Desert Kin
A team of 10 software employees of Hyderabad are cremating dead bodies which are abandoned by their families.
Over a phone call, the family said that the 68-year-old man who lived with his COVID-19 positive wife and daughter had died that very night. But on 11 May, when 33-year-old Srinivas Bellam and 29-year-old K Sai Teja approached the body, it was bloated and odorous.
At that house in Malkajgiri of Hyderabad, the two software engineers got the body wrapped in a bag as per COVID-19 protocol and waited for a priest to turn up for the burial. Neither the neighbours nor the deceased man’s relatives were around.
Bellam and Teja belong to a team of 10 techies who are cremating bodies of those who have died of COVID-19 in Hyderabad. Several families in the city are abandoning their deceased, they say.
“We are there to help when both friends and family abandon these bodies. We have been getting around 50 calls for cremations every day since April this year,” Bellam, who is an employee of Genpact Hyderabad, said. The rest of the techie team include employees of Cognizant, Microsoft, Tech Mahindra and HCL, among other companies.
When Whole Families Succumb
In June 2020, software engineer Ramanjeet Singh faced a tragic situation. His friend’s mother had died of COVID-19 and the family found it difficult to bear the cost of cremation that came up to Rs 50,000. Shortly after, Singh put together a team of 10 fellow techies working at various software firms, to start ‘Last Ride’, a venture that offered hearse and cremation services for free.
The professionals pooled in resources to buy a Maruti Omni van for Rs 1 lakh and converted it into a hearse. They even taught themselves burial and cremation rituals followed by various religions. The team cremated 250 people who died of COVID and non-COVID complications between July and December 2020.
However, this April, the situation they faced was unlike the first wave. “There are whole families which have died in this wave. We are left to cremate the last standing members,” says Teja, who works at Cognizant.
On 7 May, the team got a call from a woman in her 20s. Her entire family, except for her twin babies, had died of COVID-19. “Her parents-in-law had died in April and her husband succumbed at a Hyderabad hospital in the first week of May,” Teja explained. The team reached out to the hospital, received the body, kept it in a freezer overnight, and cremated it the next morning.
Often, standing in long queues at hospitals in Hyderabad to receive bodies are distant relatives and well-wishers, not the immediate family, Teja observed.
Fear, Anger, Denial
A 45-year-old man of Gunti Jangaiah Colony in Hyderabad who died of COVID-19, did not get to see his daughters before he breathed his last because their respective in-laws refused to send them home. Even for the last rites the children did not reach. “There’s fear of infection, and also apathy among families that have seen too many deaths,” Srinivas Bellam said.
Then there are those who try to settle family disputes that spring up after a sudden death.
Two sons in their 30s were fighting over their deceased father’s land before Sai Teja reached the spot. The fight went on for hours even as the body was lying abandoned in the living room. “I had to step in and ask them to settle the dispute after the cremation. They refused to attend the cremation even after we pleaded with them,” Teja rued.
For a family in Kukatpally, the ordeal of following the COVID-19 protocol was too much to bear, so they asked for help, but with no concern for the safety of the cremators. “They were trying to impress upon us that she (an elderly lady) died of natural causes. We soon realised she died of COVID-19 and immediately wore our PPE. Sometimes, families just want to wash the dead off their hands,” says Teja, who cremated the elderly lady. Her son and daughter were not ready to cremate the 80-year-old lady's body.
The Trauma of Being a Good Samaritan
Members of the team, which has been cremating at least 4 bodies a day since the second week of April 2021, are now suffering from depression and post traumatic stress disorder. “We get calls early in the morning. For the past two nights I have neither slept nor eaten. I am getting nightmares,” Teja said. Bellam called his state of mind, “emotional”.
What’s troubling the team the most is the “insensitivity” that the pandemic has brought in. “Deaths are now common. It is commonplace to die,” Teja rued.
People are lacking in empathy, Bellam said. “Among the families we meet, we see those who do not grieve. COVID-19 has brought out the un-empathetic side of us”. In May the techies are planning to add another hearse to their service. They have also been asking for a place to store dead bodies overnight. “The freezer cost is around Rs 16,000 per night. We cannot afford it, neither can the families. As per COVID-19 protocol bodies should not be left at home for long,” Teja said.
Also, there are hospitals charging families exorbitant last rite packages. “One hospital offered to transport and cremate a body for Rs 90,000. How can lay people afford this?” Teja asked.
The Last Ride team is available with their service in Hyderabad on this number - 7995404040
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