Unsung Corona Warriors Series: Delhi's first priest to perform last rites of COVID-19 victims
In the first part of Asiaville’s series – Unsung Corona warriors – we meet Delhi’s first priest to perform the last rites of COVID-19 victims. 70-year-old Jagdish Chandra has performed over 400 last rites of coronavirus victims so far. “The relatives try to see the face of those dead. Unfortunately, the rich think they can lure us with money,” Chandra said.
Delhi continues to be the third worst-hit COVID-19 state in India. While over 1.2 lakh coronavirus cases have been reported in the national capital, the deadly virus has already claimed over 3,600 lives. In June, Delhi had witnessed nearly a 400 per cent surge in COVID-19 fatalities. Later, Chief Minister Arvind Kejriwal admitted that the toll had increased due to the shortage of beds in the hospitals.
But what happens to those who die from COVID-19? Who performs their last rites? Are there people willing to take the risk?
Delhi’s Nigam Bodh Ghat was the first crematorium where the bodies of those who died from COVID could be cremated. Until June, it remained the only crematorium that could cremate those who die from the deadly virus. Initially, only CNG-based cremations were allowed by the authorities; however, with the passage of time and an increase in the death rate, they had to also allow traditional wood-based cremations.
However, priests were unwilling to perform the last rites of those who perished from COVID as they were concerned about the risks at hand.
Then 70-year-old Jagdish Chandra came forward to perform the last rites of these people. In less than two months, Chandra claims to have performed the last rites of over 400 COVID-19 victims.
The Health Ministry has observed that those above the age of 60 have a higher risk of getting infected by the deadly virus, and yet Chandra performs his duty fearlessly. At least, that’s what his daily schedule suggests.
He told Asiaville that, despite the pandemic, he completes the entire process of last rites as mandated in the Hindu rituals. Notably, during this process, he prefers not to wear a personal protective equipment (PPE) kit.
Chandra, whose family lives right next to the cremation ground, said that he has reduced his fees for COVID-19 victims.
He has also witnessed days when all the slots for pyres were full and the dead bodies had to wait in a queue.
While talking about the new challenges being faced by priests like him in Delhi, the 70-year-old Chandra said, “The relatives try to see the face of those dead. Unfortunately, the rich think they can lure us with money. They think priests are greedy and will get lured.”