Odisha Good Samaritans to perform funeral rituals of abandoned COVID-19 victims

The six friends, who have been helping cremate bodies, plan to scatter the ashes at Prayagraj after six months when pandemic situation improves.

After six months, Siddhant Panda, a resident of Odisha’s Sundargarh district, plans to pay a visit to Prayagraj for performing ‘asthi visarjan’, a Hindu ritual of immersing and scattering the ashes and leftover bones of the departed.

Mr. Panda has not lost anyone in his family or any relative in his extended family but he said he was morally-bound to bid a final adieu to some whose bodies have been abandoned.

Since last year, Mr. Panda and his five friends have been helping cremate COVID-19 victims after their relatives abandoned the bodies at Sundargarh. A fortnight ago, Sundargarh was one of the worst-hit districts in the second wave of the pandemic.

“After cremation, while some relatives turned up to collect ashes and leftover bones from cremation ground, the unknown fear of catching the virus from ashes kept many people at bay. They did not even show up to collect ashes and bones,” rued Mr. Panda, 48, who runs a drug store for living.

These people, popularly known as ‘mashani bandhi’ (friends in crematorium), diligently collected leftover bones and ashes of the victims in an earthen pot which was wrapped up in a piece of cloth. Every pot has the name of the victim and phone number of relatives written on it.

“As of now, people have not collected ashes and bones of 56 victims,” said Mr. Panda.

For past two decades, he and his friends — Kamlesh Nathani, Sisir Behera, Manoj Tripathy, Bijay Hota and Deben Sahu, all Sundargarh-based established businessmen – have been volunteering in the disposal of unidentified bodies by taking time out of their busy schedule.

Ever since the COVID-19 pandemic struck, their gesture of helping cremate bodies appeared to have become full-time job.

‘310 cremated since last year’

“We have helped cremate 310 COVID-19 victims since last year. While 78 bodies were disposed of in the first wave, the second wave saw a dramatic rise in deaths. As many as 232 bodies have been cremated at Sundargarh alone,” said Mr. Nathani.

Relatives often request these volunteers to immerse the ashes and bones in the river water.

“We cannot do that since there is standing government instruction that these earthen pots cannot be disturbed for 90 days. We have decided to do en masse ‘asthi visarjan’ at Prayagraj after six months when the COVID-19 situation improves. We are not taking a pie from government for cremating the bodies. If we abandon these pots, we would be disrespecting departed souls,” said Mr. Panda.

The Good Samaritans said the names of every victim would be recited during immersion of ashes at Prayagraj and full Hindu rituals would be followed. All six of them decided to contribute money from their pockets for the cause. “In the second wave, we have ourselves lit funeral pyres of at least 70 out of 232 COVID-19 victims this year. And we are morally-bound to complete the funeral rituals,” they said.

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