NGO Workers Who Performed Last Rites of Unclaimed Covid Bodies

The team of United Sikhs served as the last solace for unclaimed Covid bodies in the second wave of the virus in April-May 2021.

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A 48-year-old Pritam Singh was most thankful for gurbanis, the spiritual music of the Sikhs, during the second wave of Covid-19. They especially came in handy in the peak months of April and May 2021, when the NGO worker and his team of eight performed cremations for multiple Delhi citizens- on some days, the number crossed 20. It was a daily ordeal for this group of volunteers to wrap Covid bodies and carry them to cremation grounds in Punjabi Bagh, Subhash Nagar, Dwarka, and Paschim Puri for their final rites. But it was the cremation and burial of unclaimed, lonely Covid bodies that took the greatest mental toll on them.

Singh is a part of United Sikhs, an international non-profit organization affiliated with the United Nations. He has been a member of the Delhi chapter for 20 years and currently works as the head. While the team had been providing oxygen cylinders and free meal services to those in need during the first wave of Covid-19 in 2020, they witnessed a new problem in the appalling wave of 2021, which led to the death of thousands in the span of a few weeks.

“We had gone to the Deen Dayal Hospital mortuary for some work, and a staffer there requested us to cremate the body of a 42-year-old woman that no one had come to claim. We were surprised as we had not dealt with something like this till then,” Singh said.

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The team of United Sikhs in Delhi had first dealt with a Covid body in May 2020. They tended to an aged woman’s body in Fatehnagar, whose husband was unable to perform her last rites. “We quickly converted one of our volunteer’s Innova into an ambulance by removing its back seat and went over to collect the body. We wrapped it up ourselves and performed the cremation as per Covid protocols,” Singh added. Since then, the team has installed another car-cum-ambulance into their cremation service.

However, the body at Deen Dayal Mortuary threw the team into a puzzle. Singh stated that they spoke to the Delhi Police who investigated the deceased person’s address but were unable to find any relative who could claim the body. “The body was kept in the mortuary freezer for 22 days. We finally cremated it with the help of Delhi Police,” he said.

Ever since, the team has cremated over 50 bodies that were unclaimed and lay freezing in Delhi’s government mortuaries.

But it was a body in the residential area of Vikaspuri that shook the team. “We received a call from one of the residents in the area. They told us that their neighbour, an old lady, had died of Covid. She lived alone in the house, and they only got to know about her death after 2-3 days, primarily because of the smell from decomposition,” Singh added. The volunteers who saw the decomposed body were taken aback, but eventually wrapped her up and took her to a crematorium.

All the volunteers in the teamwork in separate jobs and offer time to the organization on a varied basis. While some work in the corporate sector, the others have their own business. Singh, who owns a steel fabrication business, stated that they underwent a significant mental breakdown during the two months. “We saw so many bodies. Once, we cremated 22 bodies in a single day. We aren’t used to things like this as we had never handled a decomposed body, and it gets difficult to deal with it after a while. I used to come home and listen to gurbanis to calm down,” Singh said.

The psychologists and therapists in the USA chapter of United Sikhs offered regular counselling to all volunteers.

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Once, while the team was cremating a body at the Subhash Nagar crematorium, they came across a Covid body that had been abandoned outside its gates. An ambulance driver had perhaps left it outside, since no one came to claim it. It lay bare in the sun for 6 hours, waiting to be claimed, before the volunteers eventually cremated it.

“Several wage labourers and construction workers were left alone in hospital wards. They died and stayed in the mortuaries, waiting to be claimed. Even the ones who had relatives were left alone because the latter didn’t want to pay money for their cremations,” Singh added.

Reflecting on the loneliness of death, Singh said that they performed last rites for people of all ages who were left alone with no one to conduct their last rites. They often received calls from family members in other states or were told to conduct cremations alone since people felt unsafe coming to crematoriums. Singh further added, “People used to send their servants along for the cremation. Once, someone asked me how much a package to send the ashes back to their home would cost. I was surprised by how similar this sounded to a ‘food delivery’ service.”

The second wave of the virus is on a steady decline, with Delhi registering less than 200 cases every day. The daily positivity rates and death rates have gone down significantly, which has given Singh some time to breathe. But the team is now preparing for a possible third wave of the virus. They have introduced two new ambulances to their fleet. “Three of these are fully oxygen equipped and have a mini ventilator. The other two will be used for the deceased,” he added.