International report

Crematoriums face meltdown as funeral fires light up the skies in India

Audio 04:19
Family members watch after performing the last rites of a person who died due to COVID-19 at a crematorium in Jammu, India,
Family members watch after performing the last rites of a person who died due to COVID-19 at a crematorium in Jammu, India, AP - Channi Anand

The acrid stench of wood-fire, molten oils and the confused ululation of last rites engulf cremation centers in India where the pandemic is currently claiming three lives every minute. The sub-continent’s coronavirus tally surpassed the grim 21-million mile-stone and the death toll reached 238,000 at the end of the first week of May.


Final resting places in the Indian capital, Delhi, are bearing the brunt as the city logged a staggering total of 1.3 million infections and 18,739 Covid deaths on 8 May.

“We are helping families in distress irrespective of their religion and caste,” said Pritam Singh, director of United Sikh, a private charity helping distraught people.

“Bodies start coming at the crack of dawn.. . and there’s no respite till sundown,” added undertaker Chandra Shekhar at Nigambodh Ghat, Delhi’s busiest cremation ground, almost invisible in fetid haze.

Bereaved families often falsify cause of death to access less-crowded non-Covid centers and give a dignified farewell to relatives killed by the virus.

“But we can always tell,” said priest Ashok Sharma at a center in Tilak Vihar district where bodies wrapped in cloth arriuve in lorries, ambulances or cars.

'A rich man's resting place'

Mourner Mansi held her ground with her brother’s lifeless body slung in an rickshaw at the Lodhi Road crematorium, a stroll away from luxury hotels, golf course and swanky bungalows in Delhi’s heart.

“It is a rich man’s resting place….But we are not budging,” said the 36-year-old women, pale with grief and anger.

Facility staffers were helpless, pointing to the train of ambulances stacked with human bodies.

“There is not one inch of space available,” one said at its arched entrance.

Delhi’s high court sought action on an appeal for ramped-up facilities in the city where India’s oldest and largest Islamic burial site has also run out of space, media said.

Petitioner Pratyush Prasanna complained families were being told to hold bodies in air-conditioned rooms and wait their turn.

Jitender Singh Shunti, a volunteer collecting bodies from homes and hospitals, said he was using a parking lot as a cremation ground in Delhi’s Seemapuri district.

Fears of the impact of a second lockdown

India worries a strict lockdown may calm the suffocating surge but it could shatter livelihoods of millions as it did in 2020 when the nation was shut with almost no advance warning in March.

But Anthony Fauci, the top US infectious disease official, argued the fears were misplaced.

 “In the long run, it will be beneficial . . . as opposed to detrimental to the economy,” he told journalists in India.

And as India descended into grief, Foreign Minister Subrahmanyam Jaishankar called for a “pause” in the debate over the cataclysmic surge, which added 11 million new infections in four months.

“I think we need to put a pause to it. We have a serious national crisis (and) the fact is societies are defined by their ability to come together when you deal with a crisis of this magnitude.

“This is like a war,” the minister said.

High courts calls oxygen supply failure 'genocide'

But Dr. Randeep Guleria, director of the India’s largest hospital in Delhi – could not hide his frustrations.

 “You have a large number of patients waiting to get a bed, wanting to get oxygen, wanting treatment, but you are struggling to balance things out,” the lung specialist commented.

A high court in a state adjoining Delhi called deaths from oxygen shortages an act of “genocide".

“Death of Covid patients just for non-supplying of oxygen to the hospitals is a criminal act and not less than a genocide by those who have been entrusted the task to ensure continuous procurement and supply chain of liquid medical oxygen," the court statement continued.

Adding to the sense of horror, bodies are regularly seen floating down the Yamuna river.


Daily newsletterReceive essential international news every morning