On Tuesday afternoon, advocate Anjali Chauhan stood facing the body of her mentor at Dayanand Muktidham Crematorium in Central Delhi. Her mentor, Supreme Court lawyer Anip Sachthey, 65, was battling Covid-19 as well as continuing his treatment for liver cancer when his oxygen levels dropped on Monday, Chauhan said.

His family secured an oxygen cylinder after hours of searching, but it could not be linked to the venturi mask, said Chauhan. Sachthey died at his residence that evening. He had served as a senior executive member of the Supreme Court Bar Association.

But it was a long wait before his family members could cremate his body. His wife and daughter had reached the crematorium at 11 am but were told that there were 25 others waiting in line to cremate. Both had donned PPE kits and stood waiting next to his body.

“We have been calling crematoriums since last night, but there are no slots,” said Chauhan, who was waiting with Sachthey’s family at the crematorium at 1.40 pm on Tuesday. “You can see we are just waiting,” she said. “We have laid the body down.”

Chauhan’s ordeal of waiting for a cremation is not uncommon in Delhi, one of the worst hit cities that has been engulfed by an inferno of Covid-19 cases. Over 15,000 deaths have been recorded in the city since the start of the pandemic. A quarter of these – 3,982 deaths – have been registered in just the past four weeks. This number is likely to be much higher as several deaths have gone uncounted.

Grief is cloaked over the city much like the smoke hovering above from its crematoriums. And pictures of mass cremations in the capital are a testimony to the devastation. At crematoriums, staffers have scrambled to make space for more pyres. “We have had to ask families to take back bodies and cremate them elsewhere,” said Ram Pal, who has been performing the last rites at Dayanand Muktidham crematorium for 11 years.

At Dayanand Muktidham crematorium on April 27. (Credit: Vijayta Lalwani)

Pal has never seen a rush at the crematorium like this before. For five days, at least 40 to 50 bodies have been cremated daily. This is much beyond the crematorium’s capacity that can only cremate upto 30 bodies in a day, he said.

“We do not have space for 40 to 50 bodies, but we have just been adjusting for space,” he said. “I would request the government to open up space near the Yamuna for these cremations. At least we can maintain distance there.”

Indeed, the crunch for space has been felt at other cremation sites in the city as well as devastated families pour in. At some crematoriums in the city, corpses were placed in a queue that lasted for nearly 22 hours before the last rites were performed. In one such gruesome queue in a crematorium in Ghaziabad, a dog gnawed at the body of a deceased.

Other facilities have run out of capacity after which space has been created in parks and parking lots for makeshift funeral pyres. Even crematoriums for dogs will be used for funerals in the capital.

‘Bodies after bodies are coming’

On Tuesday, the entrance of Dayanand Muktidham crematorium was packed with ambulances. Inside, at least three bodies, wrapped tightly in white sheets, laid on a stretcher on the floor of a wide hall as family members waited for priests to conduct the last rites.

Beyond the hall, several funeral pyres lined in rows burnt in bright flames. From a distance, families watched and grieved. “I prayed so much but what happened?” said one woman, sobbing, as she sat with another relative.

Some family members were drenched in sweat and took off their PPE kits, and dumped in an overflowing dustbin outside the cremation yard. At another end, three workers helped a family member push a cart piled with heavy logs of wood towards the yard.

After the cremation, relatives had to register the death of the person with the crematorium. At least 13 people stood in a line as one man behind a desk sieved through documents and identity proofs to register the deaths.

As if this was not enough, the crematorium was running out of wood used to lay out a funeral pyre and aid the cremation of the body. It takes at least 300 kgs of wood to cremate one body, Pal said. “There are more bodies than wood,” he said.

To address the acute shortage in the city, the forest department has allowed the felling of at least 200 trees, The Times of India reported on April 25.

But Pal only anticipated that the number of funerals would exceed the available wood. “We will keep cutting trees but at this rate we will not have any left,” he said. “In the coming time it will be very bad, because if we do not get wood then how will we perform the sanskaar...bodies after bodies are coming.”

Shortage of space is also a growing problem in Delhi’s Muslim cemeteries, where sections of land were cordoned off last year to bury the bodies of Covid-19 victims.

At the 45-acre Jadid Qabristan Ahle Islam near Delhi Gate, for instance, the five-acre section for Covid-19 burials is already full with nearly 1,200 graves since March 2020.

“We are using every small patch of land on that plot, but if we continue to get 15-20 bodies every day, then we will have to turn people away in a couple of days,” said Mohammed Shamim, the supervisor of the cemetery. “And it hurts to turn people away at a qabristan after they have already run around to find hospital beds and oxygen.”

Shamim claims nearly all of Delhi’s graveyards are in a similar situation, and he has sought permission from the cemetery management authorities to expand the Covid burial section of the graveyard.

Emptying pockets

As if the long lines, space crunch, and shortages of staff and wood are not enough, some families seeking to cremate their dead are also being forced to empty their pockets in their time of grief.

Family and colleagues of Mohan Sawant, for instance, had to shell out nearly Rs 15,000 as bribes to various people at Delhi’s Nigambodh Ghat cremation ground on April 25.

An office superintendent at Maharashtra Sadan, Sawant died of Covid-19 at Kamal Hospital, which did not provide an ambulance to ferry the body to a crematorium. Sawant’s 20-year-old son sought help from Nitin Lonkar, a lawyer and Sawant’s colleague, who began scouting for crematoriums that would accept the body for the final rites.

“Initially, at Nigambodh, they said they only accept bodies from a few specific hospitals,” said Lonkar, who had to seek the help of a local politician and the police to gain entry into the cremation ground, and even then had to bribe the gatekeeper before he could get a token for the cremation.

“By the time we got inside with the body, most of the crematorium staff had gone on a break, because they had been working continuously for 14 hours,” said Lonkar. They had entered the grounds at around 7 pm, and spent over three hours arranging for help to collect wood, build a pyre and put Sawant’s body on it. “Each person charged exorbitant amounts to help us.”

At 10.45 pm, just Lonkar and Sawant’s son were about to light the pyre, they faced another hurdle. “A pandit suddenly showed up and obstructed us. He said, jab tak yahan ki parchi nahi kataoge, yahan deh sanskar nahi ho sakta,” said Lonkar. Until they got a receipt from the priest, they would not be able to carry out the cremation.

Lonkar could not understand what the receipt was meant for, but agreed to pay the priest Rs 1,700 just so that Sawant could be cremated smoothly. “After that, the pandit chanted just one mantra, said ‘Jai Shri Ram’, and lit the pyre,” he said.

“And he also charged more money to do the kapal kriya ritual of breaking the skull,” said Lonkar. “There were many such pandits at the Ghat, and they were all arrogant, drunk and abusive. Sawant’s son is young, and he was completely traumatised.”

Dealing with grief

For many families, the trauma of losing a loved one is now saddled with an added burden: protecting other ailing loved ones from the news of the death, so that they don’t succumb to shock and grief.

This was the dilemma for Amit Dwivedi’s friend, Sanjay (name changed), who lost his father to Covid-19 in Delhi’s Patparganj area on the night of April 26, days after his entire family had tested positive.

“His father had died at home, and my friend wanted to hide the death from his mother, who was in a vulnerable condition in another room,” said Dwivedi. Sanjay’s family was also keen to follow the Hindu custom of cremating bodies only during daylight hours, and Sanjay was worried his father’s body would begin decomposing if it was kept at home without an air conditioner all night.

“He asked me for help to find a refrigerator to keep the body in till morning, and I called people from all political parties for help, but we could not find anything,” said Dwivedi.

At 1.30 am, when a dejected Dwivedi checked in with Sanjay, he found that Sanjay had given up the search and taken his father’s body out of the house.

“He found an ambulance which dropped them outside a cremation ground, and he waited there with the body all night before he could enter and begin the cremation process,” he said. “The situation is so bad right now, this kind of thing could happen to any of us.”

For others, grieving the loss of a loved one had turned more cumbersome while dealing with the complexities of the cremation process. Chauhan had last spoken to her mentor on Monday afternoon. “He was like my everything, he was like my father,” she said. “This time it does not matter who you approach [for help], it could be the PM or CM, nothing happens.”