At sunset on June 25, Punit Patel stood outside the morgue of Jayaben Modi Hospital in Ankleshwar, Gujarat, suppressing his grief and making desperate calls to his friends and relatives. His father, 60-year-old Chandrakant Patel, had succumbed to Covid-19 that afternoon, after four days of battling for life on a ventilator.

It was the first Covid-19 death in the Hindu community in Bharuch district, and according to custom, his body was meant to be cremated before sundown. But when Punit Patel contacted the crematorium in Ankleshwar, he was faced with an unexpected rejection. Local residents near the crematorium were afraid that the smoke from the pyre would spread the novel coronavirus, and refused to let Chandrakant Patel’s last rites take place there.

Punit then called the cremation ground in the neighbouring city of Bharuch, only to be rejected again, for the same reasons.

With the hospital keen to hand over the body and no good options in sight, Punit sought the help of relatives and friends who had connections with the local administration. At 9 pm, hours after his father’s death, Punit and three male relatives were provided with an ambulance, personal protective gear, and permissions to take the body to the family’s hometown of Jambusar, 80 km away.

“Since that is our native place, the local residents did not object to the cremation,” said Punit, a 25-year-old software engineer.

His family is still disturbed by the fact that they had to break away from custom and cremate Chandrakant Patel late at night, only because the residents of Ankleshwar and Bharuch objected to a Covid-19 cremation in their midst. “No virus can survive the 1,200-degree [Celsius] heat of a pyre, but people have such narrow minds,” said Punit.

Relatives pray before the cremation of a woman, who died due to the coronavirus, at a crematorium in New Delhi on July 8. Photo: Danish Siddiqui/ Reuters

No dignity in death

The novel coronavirus began spreading across India in March. In the early weeks of the pandemic, there were multiple reports of people obstructing funerals of Covid-19 patients because of their fears of catching the virus.

International and national health guidelines have emphasised that the coronavirus does not spread through dead bodies if adequate safety precautions are taken while handling them. But general ignorance about this left several Covid-19 patients with no dignity in death: some bodies were shunted around from one funeral ground to another, some had to be buried or cremated with police protection, and many have been abandoned by their own families.

Now, after nearly four months of the pandemic, in which more than 21,000 people have died across India, Chandrakant Patel’s case highlights the ignorance that still persists among people in parts of the country.

It is also a tragic reminder of the difficulties of dealing with death in the times of coronavirus and the lockdown. For both Covid and non-Covid deaths, there is a heavy logistical and emotional cost that thousands of families are grappling with.

With every life lost, loved ones must make heartbreaking decisions to compromise on traditional rituals and condolence practices. They must choose between the emotional trauma of grieving alone and the risk of spreading the virus by opening their doors to family and friends.

These are not easy choices. followed the stories to highlight the impact of these decisions on grieving families.

People mourn after seeing a body of their relative, who died due to the coronavirus, in New Delhi on July 9. Photo: Adnan Abidi/ Reuters

‘When he died, I could not be with my family’

For those who lose a loved one to the virus, perhaps the biggest challenge is being quarantined, and missing the emotional support that many draw from group prayers, religious rituals and condolence visits from relatives and friends.

When Chandrakant Patel tested positive for Covid-19 and was hospitalised on June 18, his wife, brother and daughter were immediately quarantined at a public health centre in Jambusar. Punit Patel, who works in Gurgaon, rushed to Gujarat on the first flight he could get, but could meet neither his father nor the rest of his family.

“I had not seen my father in six months. And when he died, I could not be with my family,” said Punit. “We could not do the twelfth and thirteenth-day poojas at home, so I had to do them alone in a temple – just the priest and me.” This has been particularly difficult for the older members of the family, because of their religious belief that group prayers help liberate the deceased person’s soul.

Now that Punit’s family is out of the quarantine centre, they have been coping with their grief by praying at home and spending hours sharing memories of his father. Relatives have tried to make up for their physical absence through frequent phone calls, but Punit’s mother has found that to be more difficult. “We try to keep her away from too many phone calls because it just makes her cry even more,” said Punit.

‘We could not even get her photo framed’

In Mumbai, 50-year-old Sanjay Chavan was himself stuck in a hospital when his wife, Vaishali, died on May 5. The couple had been admitted to Dattatreya Nursing Home with sudden and similar symptoms of pneumonia and typhoid, but 44-year-old Vaishali died before she could be tested for Covid-19.

“For the three days that she was in the hospital, the doctors did not ask whether she was on any other medication, and she ended up missing her regular thyroid medicines,” said Chavan, a conductor with Mumbai’s BEST public bus service. Chavan is not sure what specific thyroid disease Vaishali suffered from, but believes that she died of hormonal imbalance caused by the missing medication. “She was not in any state to remember her medicines, but the doctors should have asked her.”

The day she died, Chavan was on oxygen support in the same ward, watching the doctors’ failed attempts to save his wife. “It was just two days before our 23rd anniversary,” he said.

Vaishali Chavan was 44 when she died. Photo courtesy: Sanjay Chavan.

The couple’s children – a 21-year-old son and 17-year-old daughter – were left alone to manage their mother’s funeral, with the help of a few neighbours from their chawl in Santacruz. Chavan’s mother-in-law, who lives with him, was too grief-stricken to help. “Because of the lockdown, none of our relatives could come to support us,” said Chavan. “And in the middle of all this, my children had to look after me too.”

Chavan tested negative for Covid-19 a few days after Vaishali’s death, but had lost his faith in the nursing home he was in. He managed to get himself transferred to the larger Shatabdi Hospital, only to be admitted in a “mixed ward” with both Covid and non-Covid patients. “I was recovering slowly, but I was so scared of getting coronavirus that I took a voluntary discharge after 15 days,” he said.

Chavan is now back to work as a BEST conductor, and spends his days trying to silently cope with his feelings of grief and helplessness. “Thanks to the lockdown, we have not been able to do anything in memory of my wife,” he said. “For a long time, we could not even get her photo framed to put on the wall.”

A thousand people at a funeral

In Hyderabad, Mubashir Khurram and his family have been coping with a triple tragedy: his mother died of a heart attack in mid-June, his uncle died as a suspected Covid-19 patient three days later, and his aunt died after testing positive for the coronavirus on July 4. His uncle and aunt were his mother’s older siblings.

Khurram lives in a joint family with 18 members, who had “taken the lockdown very seriously” throughout April and May. But when his mother, 58-year-old Shahjahan Begum, died, lockdown restrictions across the city had begun to lift, and the family found themselves facing nearly a thousand visitors who came to offer their condolences.

“For my mother’s funeral, we had clearly requested everyone we knew not to come because of Covid, but how many people can you say no to when they show up?” said Khurram, a journalist with an Urdu newspaper. “We made sure to hand out masks and gloves to everyone who came.”

But for some family members, these arrangements were too little, too late. His aunt, 80-year-old Akhtar Begum, had already attended her neighbour’s funeral that week, where, most likely, she was exposed to the virus. At Shahjahan Begum’s funeral, she met other relatives, of whom two later tested positive for Covid-19 – her oldest brother and one of her sisters-in-law. Her younger brother, Sheikh Mehmood, died before he could be tested, but showed symptoms of the disease.

“I attended my uncle’s funeral and tried to make sure I maintained distance from people, but not everyone does that,” said Khurram. While his uncle’s wife and his older uncle are now recovering from Covid-19, his aunt Akhtar Begum succumbed to the disease on July 4. Her funeral took place according to Covid-19 protocols, and no one has been able to go visit her family.

“Some relatives have called and said, log kya kahenge – what will people say – if we don’t visit for condolence, but right now there is no other choice,” said Khurram. “My aunt’s own son has been stuck in Dubai. He had cancelled his plans to live in the US and chose Dubai instead, just so that he could fly home easily for any emergencies, but he couldn’t be there for his mother anyway.”

Since his aunt was at his mother’s funeral, Khurram has been calling up everyone else who was present there and asking them to self-isolate and watch their health. “This has been the most difficult time for my family, but I also know that there are people who have suffered much more,” he said.

This reporting was supported by a grant from the Thakur Family Foundation. Thakur Family Foundation has not exercised any editorial control over the contents of this article.