Death Inc

Prince Mathews Thomas | Updated on January 24, 2018

Going tech-savvy Jata Shankar Dwivedi plans to start live telecast of cremation and pujas through his website ANAND SINGH





From Skyping funerals to chartered helicopters that disperse ashes over the Ganga, the economics of death is anything but morbid, writes Prince Mathews Thomas

For many a Hindu, it is a final wish — to die in Varanasi or be cremated at one of its 100 ghats. Jata Shankar Dwivedi’s family has been catering to this wish for close to two centuries since it migrated to the holy city from Nepal. “We do all kinds of pujas and make sure people are satisfied,” says Dwivedi, known to people in Varansai as Panditji.

But there are thousands of pandits like him in Varanasi. To stand out in this crowd, Dwivedi in 2008 set up Kashi Moksha Incorporation, a registered society that ‘provides funeral service to Hindus all around the world’. Two years later, the priest added another dimension to his service — the website to connect better with his clients.

“I get calls from all over India and the world, including the US and Europe, to conduct rites for dead ancestors, parents and relatives. Times have changed and joint families are rare. Yet, the children and grandchildren of the deceased want to continue the tradition, irrespective of where on the globe they live,” says Dwivedi. It helps that Kashi Moksha Incorporation’s office is strategically close to the Manikarnika Ghat, one of the most sought after in Varanasi, with 300 cremations a day. A son unable to attend his father’s funeral just has to call Dwivedi on his mobile and can ‘perform’ the rites as the pandit chants the mantras over the phone line. The pandit’s colleagues, meanwhile, record the puja and send the CD to the son, who can pay through a demand draft or transfer the money online to Dwivedi’s bank account.

Now that his competitors have caught up with their online portals, Dwivedi wants to leapfrog and retain his competitive edge. “From April, I will start live telecast of a cremation or a puja, so that relatives can join in from any part of the world. I will use Skype or any other technology,” he says.

Under the radar

There are thousands of entrepreneurs like Dwivedi in what could be called India’s death-care industry, a concept that’s common in the US. Almost completely unorganised in India, it is probably the only sector that flies under the radar of media, policymakers and investors. Ironically, the same social beliefs and taboos that drive its business, also ails it. A start-up like Kashi Moksha Incorporation might never get a private equity investor.

While there is no official estimate, the industry is worth about $2.5 billion in India, where about 8.5 million die every year. Still, it is nowhere near its international peers. The US death-care industry is worth nearly $20 billion and its biggest player, Service Corp International, had revenues of $2.4 billion in 2012. The world’s largest retailer, Wal-Mart is a leading seller of caskets in the US, and even offers EMI schemes.

It may be years before a mainstream company in India latches on to the opportunity, but already significant changes are underway in the local death-care industry. Even as some family-owned undertakers are closing down, others have evolved to stay relevant. Newer ones like Kashi Moksha are specialising in one of the allied services — from performing rituals to managing the transportation and repatriation of bodies, or scattering the remains of a loved one over the Ganges. And when it comes to owning an eight-by-two feet space for one’s final rest, the law of demand-and-supply has caught up. Graves, like any real estate, are fast turning exorbitant.

Simpson Kumar and his four brothers run the Chennai-based Vincent Parker ‘integrated’ funeral service. “Death is a sad reality of life, it is inevitable,” says Kumar. He will know. A few of his clients have planned ahead for it, giving him ‘fixed deposits’ to cover their funeral expenses. “Many of the elderly ones live alone and don’t want their near ones to worry. Often we get calls from children who are away and their parents are critically ill. We take care of all the needs,” says Kumar, whose grandfather set up the firm in 1936.

On the first floor of its office on Kilpauk Garden Road, five carpenters are busy giving shape to coffins. “The basic one costs ₹3,000 and others are priced up to ₹30,000,” says Kumar. The more expensive ones are made of teakwood and lined with satin cushions. On the ground floor, behind the main office is the deep freeze, where bodies in refrigerated caskets wait for relatives to arrive for the funeral. “Earlier, Christians and Hindus used to insist on having the funeral within 24 hours. But with children away, there is no option but to wait,” says Kumar. Families sometimes request a mobile mortuary to be delivered home and these cost up to ₹5,000 a day. Kumar’s clients were mostly Christians until the 1980s, but now include members of the Hindu and Parsi communities. “We manage logistics such as transporting the body in a hearse, or repatriating it,” says Kumar.

Evolving services…

Vincent Parker is among the few remaining big names for undertakers in Chennai. Like their peers elsewhere in the country, many have fallen victim to family splits or competition. Unsurprisingly, those that survive are keen to diversify. Kumar and his brothers now help clients advertise in the obituary pages of newspapers as part of their services.

Recently, a leading eye hospital approached Kumar to join its initiative to develop an eye bank. Kumar will need to familiarise his clients about the benefits of donating the eyes of their deceased loved ones. His peer Elroy Noronha’s Mumbai-based Indian Funeral Service is already working with city hospitals to promote cadaver donation. “It is a new, but sensitive concept. But it can save lives,” says Noronha.

His company, founded in 1989, specialises in repatriation. “It began after we transported a body from Punjab to the UK and realised that repatriation is part of the job,” he says. The company has built a network with embassies and multinational companies. “Repatriation can be expensive, especially if the deceased is from Europe or the US. To avoid the expense, families sometimes decide to hold the funeral or cremation in India itself,” adds Noronha. It can cost up to ₹5 lakh to repatriate a body, including the embalming.

“In many cities private embalmers are not allowed, and at times our ‘embalming certificates’ are not held valid at airports. Hospitals usually do it,” says Noronha. The embalming cost varies from ₹4,000 in Delhi to ₹25,000 at the CMC Hospital in Ludhiana, Punjab, says the website of Indian Funeral Service.

…and increasing competition

Undertakers are spreading operations across cities, heating up the competition. Many rely on a specialised service to capture the market. “In India, some of the undertakers embalm a body within an hour; they embalm only the face. It is a crime. The whole body has to be preserved. We take up to six hours to embalm a body,” says Poonam Jain, Executive Director — Operations, at the Delhi-based Prima Air Global Ltd specialising in repatriation. The company also offers travel management, including hotel reservations and holiday packages, says Jain, who was coordinating repatriation at her earlier job in a foreign embassy.

The work is often challenging and complicated. Once, Jain got a call from the family of a foreign tourist who had died in Ladakh. As air connectivity in that State is poor, “We had to charter a private jet to bring the body,” she says. The cost: ₹9 lakh. She has many a time sent colleagues, coffin in hand, to collect a tourist’s body from the mountains of Bhutan, or a remote jungle in India. The company also organises cremations for clients who have specific demands such as scattering the remains of loved ones over the Ganga. The cost varies with the type of helicopter, number of trips and the part of river chosen for the ceremony. The bill for this final act of love can touch up to ₹6 lakh.

Caring for the environment

At Varanasi, thousands of bodies are cremated every day and smoke bellows out from its ghats. A scene that has seemingly disturbed the team at Mokshda Paryavaran Evam Van Suraksha Samiti. For 22 years, this non-governmental organisation (NGO) in Delhi has been trying to build an efficient, green crematorium. “On an average 400-500 kg of wood is burnt in a cremation. Overall, in India we burn 4.5 million tonnes of wood every year, emitting 8 million tonnes of greenhouse gas,” says Anshul Garg of Mokshda. The NGO has built a system that uses about 150kg, or 70 per cent less, wood. It has installed about 100 units across the country, mainly in the northern parts. Besides saving trees and money (wood for cremation costs ₹5 to ₹20 per kg), the green crematorium offers free service.

“We are not doing business here. After setting up the units, we hand them over to local NGOs,” says Garg. Mokshda gets funds from the Government, international organisations and the corporate sector. Stating that their crematoriums were more efficient than the electric ones, Garg says: “Electric crematoriums need backups like generation sets that work on diesel.”

The biggest challenge yet is changing people’s mindset. “Cremating in the traditional method is thousands of years old. We are trying to change a culture,” says Garg.

Changing norms

The burgeoning population and lack of space have made graves a premium proposition, especially in cities. Last year, when a member of a church in East Delhi died, his family had to travel to the city’s northern outskirts to bury him. “The cemeteries in Delhi were either full or expensive,” says a friend, who declined to be named. Down south, in the affluent neighbourhood of Kumbanad in Kerala’s Pathanamthitta district, a ‘private’ grave costs nothing less than ₹5 lakh.

Opposite the Vincent Parker office is the Kilpauk Cemetery, the largest in Chennai. “But it is full now. We have stopped giving space for new graves,” says Bosco Alangar Raj, Secretary, Madras Cemeteries Board, which runs the cemetery. It runs another cemetery in the city, but has handed over a third one to two local churches after they became “almost full.” Says Raj, “Earlier, a grave could be reused only after 14 years. A few years ago, we brought it down to seven years, and now allow members to use it within two years.”

While the decision was welcomed by all, another initiative to build vertical, multi-layer vaults has found few takers. The Kilpauk cemetery had built about 450 such vaults five years ago, but 50 of them remain unsold despite being priced reasonably at ₹7,500 and the high demand for grave space. “Not everyone likes the idea of keeping their loved ones in this way,” says Kumar of Vincent Parker. The church is also gradually encouraging members to adopt cremation, as the Madras Cemeteries Board realises that not much space is needed to bury ashes. The Board now sells a one-by-one ft plot to bury ashes. In Kolkata, there is a historical legacy to the space-crunch in its cemeteries. As Ranajoy Bose, member of the Christian Burial Board explains, “Kolkata, which was the capital of British India, was the first international city in the country. People from all over the world, including the Portuguese, Swiss, Greek and Italians settled down in the eastern port city.” And all of them built cemeteries, with the earliest being the St John’s Churchyard set up in 1709.

Centuries later, many of these graves are in neglect. Relatives have stopped visiting and, not surprisingly, many families have stopped paying the annual fee of ₹100. “There is a problem of space. With many of these graves going back to the nature, we decided to gradually identity and classify them, and are trying to allot them very selectively,” says Roy. The Christian Board runs five cemeteries in the city and has had to contend with trespassers taking over parts of the land.

Land an issue

The space crunch is a serious problem among Muslims too. Delhi Wakf Board data shows there were nearly 500 Muslim graveyards in Delhi in the 1970. Now there are less than 100. In Mumbai, which has 71 cemeteries, the largest Muslim cemetery — Badakabarastan — stopped allotting space in 1984. In 2010, remains of Bollywood legends such as Madhubala, Mohammad Rafi and Naushad were dug up at the Juhu cemetery and disposed of to make way for reuse.

In Chennai, leaders of the community are currently debating how to use a plot owned by the Tamil Nadu Wakf Board. Originally set aside for burials, growing voices now want a school instead there instead. Both needs are high priority. “The space problem (for burial) is not acute at present. But none can say of the future. At the same time, we need more schools too,” says M Mohammed Sikkandar, Member, Tamil Nadu Wakf Board. Sikkandar, also a member of governing bodies of community schools in the city, often has parents queuing up at his office seeking admission for their children. “The land problem for graves is a problem across faiths. The government should allot more land,” says Sikkandar.

Published on March 02, 2015

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