Angels gather to give COVID-19 victims a dignified burial

Photographed in 2020

The COVID-19 situation is dire. 

For many families, it is hard not getting a chance to say a final goodbye to their loved ones. For the staff at crematoriums and burial grounds, the situation is difficult and confusing.

The pandemic hit India in March 2020 and cases started to rise day by day, as did fatalities. On June 17 the country recorded 2003 deaths, a record. By September 3, 3.85 million of 1.4 billion Indians had tested positive and about 67,000 had died.

Volunteers of Helping Hands Foundation and family members wearing PPE kits offer their final prayers before burying a body at a Muslim burial ground in Bangalore.

Since then, every other day began to see a new single-day record in cases, making India the third worst-hit country, following the United States and Brazil. Nearly 2.97million were discharged as of September 3, official data showed.

A priest walks past ambulances carrying dead bodies at a Hindu crematorium in Bangalore. Many priests spend hours at these crematoriums wearing masks, gloves in traditional attire.

Burying loved ones became more tragic as doubts about cremation and burial procedure arise. As time went by, there were instances of corpses abandoned on stretchers, right in front of the houses, hospitals and pavements.

The situation eased after NGOs stepped in, who offered assistance in performing final rites, digging up graves and donating ambulances.

Volunteers of Helping Hands Foundation carry a body at a Muslim burial ground in Bangalore.

Mercy Angles, an NGO group, was blocked by about 50 residents in MS Palya, Bangalore when an already distraught family of an 86-year old coronavirus victim sought to give their grandfather a final resting place in the community’s graveyard.

Residents of MS Palya block the road to a Christian burial ground with a bulldozer as family members and volunteers of Mercy Angles (in PPE kits) waits for police intervention.

The neighbourhood blocked the road with bulldozers and concrete sewer pipes, stopping the family from entering their home, as they were apprehensive that the virus would spread from the burial ground. Police intervention went in vain. Attempts to educate the residents that the body would be placed inside a 15-foot-deep sanitised grave failed.

Bangalore’s two NGOs- Mercy Angles and Helping Hands Foundation- took it upon themselves to perform final rites of victims whose families were under quarantine and made sure the deceased had a dignified funeral.

Volunteers carry a corpse to a burial pit in Bangalore.

The NGOs have worked round the clock, burying teens to grandparents, irrespective of religion, caste and socio-economic background. They picked up corpses from hospitals and homes, found a place to bury or cremate and perform final rites like their families would- all for free.

Relatives of a dead COVID-19 pray in front of an ambulance outside a crematorium in Bangalore. They are not allowed to touch the body or see the face of their beloved for the last time.

Marcy Angels eventually found the old man a final resting spot in a different Christian cemetery.

Residents of MS Palya turn hostile as cops intervene to make way for an ambulance carrying a COVID-19 body.
Volunteers spread white sheets before lowering a body into a grave.
Volunteers of Mercy Angles shift a body from an ambulance to a stretcher as they wait outside a crematorium in Bangalore. Due to the lack of facilities, long procedures and increased number of bodies, the queue gets longer.
Volunteers spread disinfectant powder into a pit after placing a body for burial.
A volunteer walks back to an ambulance after the police fail to convince a community on burying a COVID-19 body in a nearby graveyard. The cops later asked the volunteers to bury the body at a different burial ground.

Despite their efforts, the volunteers, mostly techies, businessmen and students, have been objected by communities while on duty, being asked to find a new burial spot at the last minute or perform the final rites away from the community burial grounds.

Several pits are dug up at a crematorium in Bangalore as the toll of COVID-19 deaths increases.
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