“Before the pandemic, we were cremating 8-10 people (daily),” said Jitender Singh Shunty, head of the Seemapuri crematorium in eastern New Delhi. “Now we cremate 100 to 120 a day.”
Demand is so high that the Seemapuri Crematorium has expanded into its parking lot, where dozens of workers are building new cremation platforms from bricks and mortar. There is so little space and so many bodies that families have to get a ticket and stand in line for their turn.
So many fires have been started in New Delhi that wood stocks are running out.
In the meantime, families have to pay for wood to burn the bodies of their loved ones. Many don’t see a choice, as they seek space in crowded crematoriums.
Cremation is considered an important part of Hindu funeral rites, due to the belief that the body must be destroyed in order for the soul to proceed to reincarnation.
Washington Post columnist Barkha Dutt lost his father to Covid-19 this week after being taken to hospital on a faulty oxygen cylinder.
“When we went to cremate him, there was no space on the cremation ground – there was a physical fight that broke out between several families,” she said on Wednesday. “We had to call the police to cremate my father.”
“Despite my devastation, I was luckier than most Indians,” Dutt added. “I think of families in need of cremation grounds, where bodies were lying on the ground.”
‘They keep coming’
India reported nearly 380,000 new infections on Thursday, marking another world record for the most cases in a single day. More than 3,600 people have died.
“We start receiving bodies in the morning and they keep arriving one after another,” Suman Kumar Gupta, an official at the Nigambodh Ghat cremation site in Delhi, said on Wednesday.
For crematorium workers and volunteers, handling hundreds of bodies daily and witnessing a constant wave of anguish takes a heavy toll. At the Seemapuri Crematorium, a number of exhausted volunteers collapsed against a wall, getting a precious little sleep before continuing their work.
Between the construction of additional pyres and the removal of the bodies, Shunty, the head of the crematorium, sits down with grieving families to offer comfort and support.
“We have cremated 55 bodies in the last five hours … (There) will be 100 by the end of the day,” he said Wednesday morning. “I am tired – but now is not the time to tire. This is the time to work for the nation, for humanity and to save lives.”
The most painful part of her job, however, has been watching “young people die from Covid,” Shunty said. “We have seen families who have lost two to three young family members. I don’t know what happened in Delhi – it is really disheartening.”
“In this wave of coronavirus, young people are infected,” Chief Minister Kejriwal said in a video tweeted on April 15. “I call on all young people to take care of themselves.”
The Indian government is working to take action as the virus spreads. Many states and cities have implemented new restrictions and closed businesses in an attempt to contain the outbreak.
But these supplies need time to be distributed, and oxygen factories need to be built. For some of the hardest-hit cities, like New Delhi, the lack of immediate help and accessible resources means bodies will continue to pile up until help arrives.
“The situation is going to get worse because Delhi doesn’t have oxygen, beds, ventilators, plasma injections,” Shunty said. “I am very angry and at the same time guilty because we cannot do more. The people who should be dealing with this are missing. They made promises and disappeared.”
“We have limited resources with a fleet of 18 ambulances. We collect 50 to 55 corpses every day,” he added. “So I’m very angry because the people who should be doing this aren’t doing it, and therefore the volunteers have to do it.”
Families who have lost loved ones have also found themselves without closure or relief.
“I speak like an angry Indian who feels betrayed by the harshness and deafness of the tone and the utter denial that I continue to see around me,” said Dutt, the columnist.
“We have been failed by the policy makers, by the politicians. We have been failed by the government which did not think about putting in place a contingency plan for the second wave.”
This claim rings hollow in her loss and grief – she has now lost both parents and feels like she is “an orphan today,” Dutt said.
“The last words my dad said to me were, ‘I’m choking. Please give me treatment.’ And I did my best,” she said. “I have no one left.”
CNN’s Manveena Suri and Esha Mitra contributed to this report.