Mortuary work is an essential service because humans are mortal. But who works for the dead, what are the technologies involved and what does history tell us about them? The public inattentiveness towards mortuary work is pervasive. Even archival documents of colonial India, reflecting histories of caste prejudices, are silent on mortuary work.
When I started my research on the technologies of burials and cremations in colonial India, I met D Sahoo, the special in-charge (or “SI Babu”, as he is fondly known) of Sirity Cremation Ground in Kolkata. He gently laughed at this archival omission: “Obviously the books don’t tell you anything about us.”
Instead, Sahoo and his colleague Pradip Kumar Gain carefully outlined a methodology for my research: “Be our witness. You can compare our present with the past, and then write the history.”
Between 2017 and 2019, I spent about 180 hours in different cremation grounds and morgues in Calcutta to understand the craft of cremation, trying to gain insight in the 21st century on how mortuary experts worked with the gas and electric cremation machines in the colonial period, a technology that was unique at that time.
Caste stigmatisation of mortuary work has ensured that workers are erased from being considered key engineers of civic life. Much like the colonial archives, current media attention to mortuary work is fleeting, only to spike a little during the times of pandemic.
Even then, mortuary workers are often the last to get Personal Protective Equipment, while they function at double the capacity. Hospital staff get upset if mortuary assistants walk into hospital wards leaving the premises of the morgues, an obvious expression of caste transgressions. But how can the work of death be ignored and contained, if death is as natural as life itself?
On a regular day, the small Sirity Cremation Ground receives eight to 10 “bodies” – the conventional English noun that workers use to refer to the individual after death. This body count adds up to about 3,000-3,500 bodies here each year. The Kolkata Municipal Corporation has seven such public cremation grounds. Bigger cremation grounds in the city cremate 30-40 bodies a day or between 11,000 to 14,000 a year.
The KMC also manages four public Hindu burial ground, four Muslim qabristans, and one Christian cemetery. The city has many more private cemeteries, held by families and trusts. Catering to a population of almost 4.5 million people in the Kolkata municipal area, the cemeteries and cremation grounds together handle around 300,000 burials and cremations in the average year (The crude urban death rate in West Bengal is 6.6 per thousand, according to the Census of India 2011).
In times of epidemics and devastations due to natural disasters, the work of managing death entails a massive urgency and constant preparedness for a surge. The sheer number gives a sense of the significance of the work.
In cremation grounds in big cities, the scale of death takes an industrial proportion. In Kolkata, each human body is cremated for a highly subsidised cost of Rs 250 (or Rs 100 for children below 12 years). The workers wait and control the temperature, keep an eye on when to use water to cool the machine down, shake the dust tray where the ashes fall, and check if the chimneys are working.
At the same time, other workers attend to the family, preparing the next body for the furnace. At all times, the furnaces are busy, evident in the waitlist times on the KMC’s website.
It can take 55 minutes to more than an hour to cremate a body. The workers at the cremation grounds assess the heat according to the weight and size of the body, and this requires a skill of commensuration. On average, incineration begins at 700 degrees Celsius. Complete dissemination of an average-sized corpse is possible at around 850 degrees Celsius.
The furnaces maintain around 650 degrees Celsius heat at all times because the process of cooling and reheating would only lead to funerals waiting, as also more wastage of electricity. The electric specialist carefully maintains this temperature, ensuring that the heat is not out of control. This requires scrutiny as furnaces are prone to damage if it heats above 1,000 degrees Celsius.
These are the standard procedures for working with a crematorium. Manufacturers of the crematoria apparatus, a Kolkata based company Truevolt Pvt Ltd in this case, perform occasional maintenance checks.
While the scientific task of cremation requires training and deft expertise, caste prejudice around death has ensured that these skills remain unrecognised. In colonial Calcutta, administrators consolidated the caste name “Dom” into a term for mortuary work since the 19th century. This prevails till date.
Sudeep (name changed to protect identity) underlined his pride in being at the forefront of maintaining public health in the city but clarified that he would not want his son to inherit his profession. “A Dom does not want his son to become one,” he said.
His colleague Pradeep Kumar Gain interrupted him: “But your work maintains the city.”
The KMC hires some mortuary workers on contract, while others are on permanent payroll. While the permanent employees get a pension and a higher salary, the contractual workers are devoid of these benefits. Many travel from the outskirts of the city. In Kolkata’s government hospitals, many mortuary assistants come from the same family. But at Sirity, that does not seem to be the case.
Apart from the task of cremation, mortuary workers provide mortality data. Throughout the 19th century, colonial India faced massive deaths due to famine, cholera and fever. Public health officers relied on hereditary forms of stigmatised labour at burial and cremation grounds for the raw data, and no one else would do the work. Therefore, colonial administrators incorporated pre-colonial forms of mortuary work and their stigmatisation into the bureaucratic processes.
Any historian working on the demography of colonial India will come across odd snippets of accounting for salaries for ex-untouchable workers such as Mahars, Doms and Murdafarashis. Some government officers would use the term Sweeper. It is a rare admission of the central role that caste plays in the history of big data.
Today, as economists and demographers peruse census reports and mortality tables, they have to acknowledge that these data were painstakingly collected by frontline mortuary workers.
Historians can find more official archival reports on mortuary workers during past epidemics, revealing the state’s dependency on them during crises. In the 1860s, as cholera ravaged Bengal, the Calcutta municipality expected the mortuary workers to work overtime to dispose of the bodies of cholera victims, without any compensation. Death workers in Calcutta refused to work till their salaries were increased.
We find similar instances of an assertion of rights during the bubonic plague epidemic at the turn of the 19th century. In 1898, buriers in present-day Latur refused to dig graves, complaining of the increased number of bodies due to the plague. Colonial sources do not suggest that local municipalities provided instructions or equipment for the safety of mortuary workers.
Yet, erasures in other times continued. From the early twentieth century, British and Indian public health experts began to advocate for the gas crematoria to replace wooden pyres. Writings on them did not mention the tasks of workers. For example, when newspapers reported the installation of a crematorium in Bombay in 1953, the news carried all the details like cost, functions, the location, and price of land, but not a single mention on how many workers it takes to run the machine
During the massive Bengal Famine in 1943, there was a crisis in death disposal as many workers also died of starvation and disease. A relief worker commented in 1944 that it was difficult to gauge the number of people who died in the famine because village chowkidars and mortuary workers had succumbed to hunger. This reveals two crucial pieces of information that prevail to date. First, our present demographic understanding of the famine came from workers and experts who were intimately related to handling the dead body in both cities and villages.
Second, scarcity is an endemic reality due to the unequal allocation of resources as part of the maintenance of caste hierarchy. This ensured many mortuary workers were the early victims of famines and epidemics.
In the face of sparse official archival sources, newspapers, oral histories, literature, and ethnography provide historians new ways to tell the stories of cities and its death work. Reimagining our historical sources is essential, as it is impossible to understand life in cities without understanding the work of death.
Mortuary work makes civic life possible, in which the rest live in the bliss of ignorance about bodily decay and their disposal.
Thus, my conversations ended with discussions on life. At the cremation ground, where does life end and death begin? To Pradip Kumar Gain, the departure of the soul was as simple as the act of changing clothes. The body was the garment to the atma. Nothing ends.
“Bhoot [ghost/the past] is atma [soul], it is Agnishwar [the god of fire], and it it hawa [wind],” he said. “At a time when there’s no storm and you see a leaf twitch, that is the force of the atma.” Life mutates and continues.
In this sense, mortuary work is not about finality, but a task of regeneration. If it is of regeneration and not decay, then one does not feel afraid of signs of death. “We do not feel scared,” Gain said. “A lot of people cannot live as we do. But if you see what we see, burnt, brought without a head, without hands, rotten, molten, you wouldn’t feel scared. The site of death is the natural site for intimacy with life.”
Sohini Chattopadhyay is a historian and works on the science and technologies forged during mass death such as epidemics, riots, and famines, and how they contribute to urban life. She can be reached at email@example.com.
She thanks D Sahoo and PK Gain for their teachings, and her namesake, journalistSohini Chattopadhyay for sharing some of the works cited here. All historical references are from the National Archive of India. Part of the interviews were sponsored by the History in Action Project, Columbia University.