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Covid Warriors: Stories from Burial Sites

In one case, the embalmed body of a Keralite who died in South Sudan arrived in Bangalore on the 12th day after his death on Ramadan Eve, with the cremation scheduled for Eid Morning. We, the volunteers, prayed Eid Namaz in a room of the deceased’s apartment, while the deceased’s final Hindu religious rituals were being performed in the Hall.

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Before it reached India, the COVID pandemic had caused unrest in many parts of the world. During this human calamity, some Samaritans proposed working together, and thus Mercy Mission in Bengaluru was founded. Many NGOs gave up their identities to work for a larger cause under one umbrella.

Multiple initiatives were taken to lessen the burden of human sufferings, such as supplying ration kits, cooked food, medicine, testing, migrant Movement, Shramik trains, Telemedicine, counseling, hospital beds, oxygen, plasma, ambulance services, Helpline, and many more such initiatives. Along with these was one Niche criteria called MERCY ANGELS with the goal of providing a dignified last rite to COVID victims.

A team of medical staff from HBS Hospital, which had undertaken the first valiant task of burying the first COVID deceased in March 2020, was the obvious choice to carry on the tasks for subsequent deaths in Bengaluru for nearly two months. This initial team, primarily made up of Muslims and one lingayath, had the opportunity to carry out the last rites for various communities, and the baton of responsibility and learnings was passed on to various others who later joined this activity. After HBS was turned into a COVID Hospital, the initial team was tasked with caring for COVID patients.

I was one of many volunteers who joined this team and donned the PPE to assist in human practice rather than as a duty to carry out the last rites of the dead. COVID deaths, the protocols surrounding them, and the way they were initially perceived and treated were all very different experiences.

Tanveer Ahmed performing the last rites

The way the bodies were packed, the restrictions on opening the packing and seeing the face, and the fear that family and friends felt about attending or performing the last rites were all reasons for volunteers to assist in the task of the last journey. Many unknown bodies have also been given a proper send-off. Some had been in the mortuary for several weeks.

Without a doubt, many things changed over time, such as the plastic multiple wrappings being replaced by body bags, the body bags being equipped with an innovative see-through film to allow visibility of the face, and so on. It was heartening to see experienced volunteers assisting families in their time of need.

Mercy Angels, a group of about 50 volunteers, the majority of whom were Muslims, as well as two Sikhs, four Christians, and one Lingayath, were able to assist in over 2000 last rites across communities. Our Volunteers range in age from 19 to 50 years old, and they work in a variety of professional fields as students, businessmen, and technologists. Surprisingly, even the civil defense volunteers tasked with managing and regulating the flow of activity at crematoriums were predominantly Muslim.

Our country is known for its cultural diversity, customs, practices, and rituals surrounding the dead, the majority of which were abandoned due to the changed circumstances. Many bodies were simply cremated or buried with no close relatives present.

Many saw an opportunity and took advantage of it, charging exorbitant fees for small ambulance rides, while standard crematorium packages ranged between ₹ 25-30,000. During these trying times, Mercy Angels’ free ambulance service came as a huge relief to many families. Apart from serving the city of Bengaluru for free, we have also done a number of outstation cases for free, sometimes covering distances of over 200kms one-way across state boundaries.

However, collaboration with crematorium workers, the BBMP crematorium helpline, Christian Volunteers AB team (Arch Bishop team), Muslim Qabristaan teams such as Helping Hands, Almighty foundation, and others made the task much easier. The generous gratitude of the deceased’s families was a powerful motivator to do more.

The country’s political agenda is Islamophobic, with many lunatics given greater autonomy to say and do whatever they want. It is well known that the Fascist regime used divisive ideology to polarize and vitiate the atmosphere for political gain. Interestingly, the self-proclaimed nationalists, the forces that try to mobilize in the name of religion, were conspicuous by their absence on the field to help humanity in these difficult times.

Because of Bengaluru’s cosmopolitan nature, we were able to continue the burial/cremation activity for people from Kashmir to Kanyakumari, such as Kashmiri Pandits, Gujrati Jains, Bengalis, Assamese, Northeastern, Biharis, UPites, and others. We had Nepali, Chinese Christian, Indonesian Buddhist, and Bangladeshi Muslim cases, among others. We also received a request for cremation from Varanasi.

Aside from COVID cases, we also assisted with non-COVID deaths. In one case, the embalmed body of a Keralite who died in South Sudan arrived in Bangalore on the 12th day after his death on Ramadan Eve, with the cremation scheduled for Eid Morning. We, the volunteers, prayed Eid Namaz in a room of the deceased’s apartment, while the deceased’s final Hindu religious rituals were being performed in the Hall.

A shooting incident resulted in the death of a 31-year-old man from Bhopal in the United States; the coordination on WhatsApp and the initial family request to fly the body back to India were handled diligently, with live streaming of the funeral with the assistance of the local Muslim community in the United States.

We not only transferred bodies from the hospital, but we also attended to many home deaths, many of which occurred without access to a bed or oxygen, some of whom consciously chose not to go to a hospital, and many who simply could not afford the hospitalization fees.

From burying many fetuses to performing the last rites of a 104-year-old freedom fighter, men, women, young and old, and transgender people have all participated.

Because of our experience with a variety of deaths, we can call ourselves “Honorary Undertakers.” This journey over the last year and a half has been rewarding, with a sense of gratitude and thanks to the Almighty for having chosen us to do these tasks.

In this fleeting world, which we must leave sooner or later, may the lessons of COVID make us more humble and better human beings with a clear goal to please the creator and help his creations in any way we can. Death is, indeed, a great leveler and a proven fact.

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