Till Covid-19 do us part

Taru Bahl | Updated on May 28, 2020

New norms: Life — along with death — under the shadow of the Covid-19 pandemic is changing in unprecedented ways   -  REUTERS/PRASHANT WAYDANDE

As families and friends struggle to say their final goodbyes to loved ones due to quarantine and social distancing, some are finding virtual ways to comfort the bereaved

* In the event of a death — whether from Covid-19 or any other cause — tearful farewells are near impossible

* Families are turning creative in finding ways to pay their last respects to loved ones

When photographs of the last rites of Bollywood actor Rishi Kapoor surfaced on the internet, his fans were shocked at the minimalistic ceremony with which a handful of family members sent him off, in conformance with government rules.

A phone video of his mortal remains was shared with his daughter, Riddhima, who was driving to Mumbai, where the funeral took place, from Delhi. This was the only way in which she could bid him adieu. All the money in the world could not buy her or the many stars in the film industry a few precious moments to pay their final respects in person.

Life — along with death — under the shadow of the Covid-19 pandemic is changing in unprecedented ways. As feelings of vulnerability increase, it’s unsurprising that a growing number of people are contemplating their own mortality. From writing and registering their will to putting bank documents in order, they are coping with the uncertainties with a few practical steps they still have control over.

On the one hand, infection leads to hospitalisation and isolation, with no one to hold your hand or comfort you in this hour of distress. On the other hand, there are many who have been avoiding hospital visits altogether, whether for consultations or tests and investigations.

“I would rather die of renal failure than get Covid-19,” says Manju Singh, a Gurugram resident who has a kidney ailment, echoing the fear of lakhs of Indians living with other diseases who are wary of risking an infection and the subsequent isolation.

In the event of a death — whether from Covid-19 or any other cause — tearful farewells are near impossible.

Take the case of a cancer patient who came to Delhi from Assam for treatment. The lockdown prevented him from returning home and he was forced to stay with relatives. In early May, he tested positive for Covid-19 and the other family members, too, were infected. He was shifted to Lok Nayak Jai Prakash Narayan Hospital, while the others were quarantined and treated at home.

After a point, the family stopped receiving updates about his condition until, on May 22, they were informed that his body was lying unclaimed in the mortuary for over 10 days. The family members in quarantine were unable to travel to the hospital. Finally, an office-bearer of the local Assam Society dug out his picture from Facebook and used it to identify the body; at the cremation ground, he waited in a queue for hours before the body was cremated according to government protocols.

Equally traumatic was the experience of Delhi resident Rajni Mehta, whose father died in Pune and she was unable to travel for the cremation because of the lockdown. The travel industry professional was barely coming to terms with her loss of income due to the extended lockdown, when she was dealt a double blow by the loss of her father and her inability to personally arrange for his last rites.

Yet, in this time of severe constraints, families are turning creative in finding ways to pay their last respects to loved ones. Mother-daughter duo Hettu and Shruti [who go by single names] in Gurugram managed to organise a graceful send-off for Hettu’s father, who passed away peacefully at the age of 90 after a valiant fight with cancer.

After a neighbourhood doctor came over at 5am to check on him and declared him dead, a few calls were made and neighbours stepped in to help with the cremation. A day later, an email invite was shared for a prayer meet on Zoom, which was attended by nearly 80 friends and family members from around the world. Hettu and Shruti anchored the hour-long ceremony, reading out anecdotes and inviting the others to share their memories of the departed soul. A poem composed and recited by someone from Toronto, a bhajan sung from Chicago, reminiscences from Germany, and more were all part of the service. There was an air of solemnity as each member on that call paid homage from their own homes. The sanctity of the moment was preserved and, as everyone logged out of the call, they felt they had indeed attended the prayer meet of a loved one, even if virtually.

Yet another family organised a unique lockdown-compliant prayer service, and the video of it went viral on social media.

It showed a family in Rajinder Nagar, Delhi, standing outside their home in a narrow lane, beside the garlanded photograph of a deceased family member, as bhajans played in the background.

The masked family stood with hands folded in gratitude as a line-up of cars slowly drove past. Some stood up in the open car holding handmade cards, painted placards and other personalised messages. That’s the closest they could come to share their grief, having been denied the luxury of holding hands or giving a hug.

In India, where there is no concept of funeral homes, it is now increasingly up to immediate family members, neighbours and other fellow residents to step up and play their part in ensuring dignity to the dead... The pandemic, masks, gloves and social distancing norms notwithstanding.

Taru Bahl is a Gurugram-based freelance journalist who works in the social sector

Published on May 28, 2020

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