Bengaluru: On most days now, a “House Full” sign hangs at the entrance to the Chamarajpet crematorium in Bengaluru. While the sign may seem incongruous to some, and morbid or distasteful to others, for the crematorium staff, it is simply a way to let bereaved families know that they don’t have the capacity for more cremations that day.
“We can cremate up to 25 bodies a day. How do we tell people not to come after that? We had to inform them somehow,” said an employee at the crematorium, by way of explaining the sign.
With the surge in Covid casualties in the second wave of the pandemic, crematoriums in Bengaluru — as in the rest of the country — are finding it difficult to handle the daily burden of bodies being brought in. Battling shortage of space and other infrastructure crunch, many are having to tell the families of the departed to return for cremations the next day.
“There is a serious lack of space. We are forced to send people back, and ask them to come the next day, as there is no space to even keep the bodies overnight,” said the Chamarajpet crematorium employee.
Karnataka reported 15,523 Covid deaths on 30 April. Bengaluru accounted for 6,275 of these. Some claim, however, that the real casualty figure is much higher.
Bengaluru has 12 electric crematoria. A new open-air crematorium was opened two weeks back, to handle the increased load of Covid fatalities.
Between 1 March to 26 April, 3,104 Covid bodies were cremated in the city, according to crematoria records. This is 54 per cent more than the official number of deaths in the same period.
Meanwhile, the Bruhat Bengaluru Mahanagara Palike has identified sites for 22 more open-air crematoria to handle the last rite requirements of the Covid dead.
Farm lands, plots in suburbs turn crematoriums
According to a statement released by the state revenue department, the government has identified land, measuring about 230.50 acres in total, at 22 places around Bengaluru, to start more open-air cremation grounds.
An official in the department, speaking on condition of anonymity, told ThePrint that these open-air cremation grounds could also serve as places for mass cremations, if needed.
Additionally, the Bengaluru municipal authorities, have decided to allow cremations in family-owned farms and plots, but only in the presence of a local health officer, to ensure that all Covid protocols are being followed.
“Our effort is to ensure that people don’t suffer any additional trauma [because of difficulties in cremating bodies],” Shivappa Lamani, tehsildar, Bengaluru South region, told ThePrint, at the Giddenahalli crematorium.
Lamani said that he comes to the cremation ground at 6 am every day and leaves only after 10 pm, after ensuring that no one is leaving the facility dejected.
Spread across four acres at the Tavarekere village on the outskirts of Bengaluru, the open-air cremation ground was started two weeks back, to handle the increased death burden owing to the pandemic.
The arrangements here did bring a measure of solace to the grief-stricken Rathod family of south Bengaluru, who were at Giddenahalli crematorium for the last rites of 52-year-old Banaram.
Despite the family’s best efforts, Banaram died without receiving a single dose of Remdesivir, a critical drug being used in the Covid treatment, shared Devilal, his younger brother.
“At Giddenahalli crematorium, the authorities respected our wishes on how we wanted our brother’s last rites to be conducted,” he added.
A difficult send off
Many, however, had horror stories to narrate.
Vanajakshi lost her brother, Srinivas, to Covid on 3 May. The family, including Srinivas’ wife Reshma, had to travel more than 50 kilometeres, from one crematorium to another, to find a place for his brother’s last rites. After being turned away from more than three crematoriums, they reached Giddenahalli, where the family was finally able to perform Srinivas’s last rites.
“The other crematoriums we had gone to told us to return with the body later, as there was a queue. Some of the places had their gates chained. We were also fleeced by the ambulance driver, who charged us Rs 15,000 to transport the body,” said Vanajakshi, a daily wager labourer.
Another bereaved family, that of 62-year-old Nanjappa Reddy, who died from Covid-related complications on 3 May, had to wait with his body outside the city’s Panathur crematorium for six hours, before they could finally complete his last rites.
“We could not take him back home as the neighbours would protest [because of the fear of infection]. The hospital would not take him back. So waited in the ambulance for six hours,” said Savita, the deceased’s daughter.
Crematoria staff, meanwhile, plead helpless, for having to turn away those awaiting cremation.
At the Panathur crematorium in Bengaluru, the gatekeeper told ThePrint that they are able to allow only up to 30 cremations a day. “It takes close to four hours to clean the place after one set of bodies have been cremated,” he added.
At the Sumannahalli, Kudlu and Hebbal crematoria in the city, the maximum number of bodies that can be cremated in a day, range between 25-40.
“We are getting close to 100 bodies every day now. Families complain we are turning them away. But a body takes four hours to burn completely. Should we give it that time?,” asked Suresh, an employee at the Kudlu crematorium.
(Edited by Poulomi Banerjee)