Families allowed to bury dead in backyards as India's Covid-19 surge overwhelms crematoriums

At a cremation ground in Ghaziabad, several bodies are being cremated using wooden funeral pyres. ST PHOTO: DEBARSHI DASGUPTA

NEW DELHI/BANGALORE - The flames leapt high from the pyres, outshining the mellow glow of the setting sun in the backdrop.

The heat was oppressive but even more searing was the heartbreaking scenes on Thursday (April 22) at the Hindon Cremation Ground in Ghaziabad, a Delhi suburb, overwhelmed with bodies of Covid-19 victims.

A young woman, kitted out in a full personal protective equipment (PPE) suit, stood wailing, her arms outstretched, as her father's body was laid on a pyre after a few hours' wait. Nearby, two weeping women hugged each other, standing next to an ambulance that had the body of their loved one.

Crematoriums in Delhi and other parts of India have buckled under a record surge in Covid-19 deaths. The city registered 348 Covid-19 deaths on Friday, or one death about every four minutes, amid a spike in cases that saw the country report more than 330,000 new cases and 2,200 deaths that same day.

In the southern state of Karnataka, the government has been forced to permit families to cremate or bury their dead loved ones in their own farms, lands or backyards, as long as they complied with health guidelines.

"It is prudent to swiftly and respectfully dispose the body in a decentralised manner keeping in view the grieving circumstance and to avoid crowding in crematoriums and burial grounds," an April 21 order read, with Karnataka Chief Minister B. S. Yediyurappa describing the Covid-19 situation as "out of control".

The state capital Bangalore - Asia's Silicon Valley - had recorded the highest death toll in a day, with 124 deaths reported on Friday.

The city's seven Covid-19 crematoriums have been operating round the clock to cremate 20 to 25 bodies arriving each day, about four times the average in normal times.

A major construction entrepreneur in Bangalore, who did not wish to be named, said his family dug up the lawn in his backyard to bury his father this week.

"As Hindus, we should cremate him, but all seven crematoriums in the city told us there's a 48-hour wait," he said, his voice choked with emotion.

At the cremation ground in Ghaziabad, several bodies were being cremated using wooden funeral pyres placed on brick-and-mortar platforms in a special section designated for Covid-19 victims.

Five such platforms were added this week in response to the growing number of bodies arriving at the cremation ground.

The Covid-19 death toll has been so high in the city that bookings for wooden cremations here mostly run out these days and bodies have to be burned in whatever little space that can be found in between these platforms.

Nearby, the only electric furnace has been running on overdrive as well to try and keep up with Covid-19 fatalities.

Bodies of Covid-19 victims being cremated at the Hindon Cremation Ground in Ghaziabad. ST PHOTO: DEBARSHI DASGUPTA

Makeshift funeral pyre

Among those waiting was Mr Suraj Rawat, 25, from Ghaziabad, who had come to cremate his maternal aunt. The family was told they would have to wait 16 hours for an electric cremation.

"There are so many people, there is such a crowd. What can we do?" he said.

Instead of waiting that long for an electric cremation, the family ended up cremating the body using wood on a makeshift clearing in the open area designated for Covid-19 victims. This happened at about 9pm on Thursday, around four hours after they arrived at the crematorium.

Unable to cope with its incessant use, the electric furnace at the Ghaziabad crematorium even broke down last week and had to be fixed.

Similar morbid reports have come in from other parts of India as obituaries fill up newspapers and bodies pile up at crematoriums.

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The chimney of an electric furnace in Ahmedabad in Gujarat cracked from excessive heat last week and had to be dismantled to be repaired.

At the cremation ground in Ghaziabad, a staff member said the facility had received around 20 Covid-19 bodies by 6pm on Thursday, with more coming in.

"Let us work," he pleaded, cutting off the conversation abruptly as he resumed overseeing a few workers weighing the precise amount of logs for each wood-fire cremation.

Ambulance drivers, who had brought in bodies, were also waiting, their vehicles parked in a long queue. Mr Irshad, who uses only one name, had brought in two bodies from the MMG District Hospital in Ghaziabad around 11am on Thursday.

A body being taken out from an ambulance at the Hindon Cremation Ground on April 22, 2021. ST PHOTO: DEBARSHI DASGUPTA

More than eight hours later, one of them had been cremated. The other lay outside the ambulance.

"I have never seen something like this, never seen bodies being burned outside like this," said the 25-year-old driver, who has been driving an ambulance for seven years.

"Earlier (prior to the pandemic), I would have to wait only 15-20 minutes," he told The Straits Times, adding that on April 21 he showed up at the crematorium at 11am and could leave only after midnight after both bodies he brought were cremated.

The only electric furnace here takes about two hours to cremate a body. It is running 24/7, still inadequate for the reported 40-plus Covid-19 bodies that have come to the crematorium on average daily in recent days.

Families who opt to cremate using wood have to wait for a few hours as well.

Pyres have to fully burn out first, following which the allotted space is cleaned by the cremation ground's limited staff, who are also responsible for setting up fresh pyres.

Workers at the Hindon Cremation Ground carrying wood for a fresh pyre at the section meant for Covid-19 victims. ST PHOTO: DEBARSHI DASGUPTA

Bookings for wooden cremations for Thursday had run out around 6pm and families were being directed to another cremation ground in the city.

"Who says there is space here? Come here and check for yourself," an agitated staff member of the crematorium argued on the phone with someone who insisted on a booking for a wooden cremation.

Mortuaries full

Waiting outside the office for a close relative's cremation was Mr Chattar Singh, 46, who had come from Delhi, which has been especially battered by the disease's ferocious resurgence.

"So we came here, where we have to wait for around 16 hours (for an electric cremation)," he said.

Someone suggested putting the body in a mortuary and returning later but mortuaries at a few hospitals in Ghaziabad they approached turned out to be full.

"We will have to wait here. What else can we do?" Mr Singh added.

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Authorities in New Delhi added makeshift platforms to crematoriums as they struggled to cope with the influx of coronavirus victims.

The sight of bodies overwhelming India's crematoriums have challenged the country's official Covid-19 death toll, which stood at 189,544 on Saturday.

On April 22, data from the local district administration in Ghaziabad, for instance, indicated only eight Covid-19 deaths, much lower than the average number of Covid-19 bodies that have been cremated daily at the Hindon Cremation Ground in the past few days.

Local media reports from across India have suggested similar mismatches between the number of Covid-19 bodies at crematoriums and the local jurisdiction's official death toll from the disease.

One possible reason for this is India's low level of testing, and attributing deaths to other causes such as a heart attack.

An unnamed senior state health official from Gujarat told Reuters this week that the higher number of cremations is because bodies are being cremated using Covid protocols "even if there is 0.1 per cent probability of the person being positive".

"In many cases, patients come to hospital in an extremely critical condition and die before they are tested, and there are instances where patients are brought dead to hospital, and we do not know if they are positive or not," the official added.

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