Indian capital's crematoriums overwhelmed with virus dead

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People wait by the burning pyre of a relative who died of COVID-19, at a crematorium in New Delhi, India, Friday, June 5, 2020. The coronavirus pandemic is leaving India's morgues piling up with the dead and graveyards and crematoriums overwhelmed. Like elsewhere in the world, the virus has made honoring the dead in New Delhi a hurried affair, largely devoid of the rituals that give it meaning for mourners. (AP Photo/Manish Swarup)

NEW DELHI – When Raj Singh’s 70-year-old mother died from the coronavirus in India's capital, he took comfort in the prospect of a proper cremation, the funeral rite that Hindus believe releases the soul from the cycle of rebirth.

But instead of chanting sacred Vedic hymns and sprinkling holy water from the Ganges River, all Singh could do was place his mother's wrapped corpse on a wooden pyre and along with a handful of relatives watch it burn.

“I never thought I would watch my mother go like this,” he said.

Like elsewhere in the world, the novel coronavirus has made honoring the dead in New Delhi a hurried affair, largely devoid of the rituals that give it meaning for mourners. Cemeteries and crematoriums are overwhelmed, so there isn’t much time for ceremony, and even if there were, the government limits the number of people allowed at funerals and those in attendance must maintain distance and wear masks.

“The whole grieving process has been interrupted,” said Pappu, who goes by only one name and lights the funeral pyres at Nigambodh Ghat, New Delhi’s biggest crematorium.

New Delhi has officially reported close to 1,100 deaths from the coronavirus, but cemeteries and crematoriums in the city say the actual number is several hundred higher. Hospital morgues are beyond capacity, and with summer temperatures reaching 40 degrees Celsius (104 degrees Farenheit) some bodies are being kept on thick ice slabs.

“In the beginning, I used to carry only one body. Now, helpers at the morgue will stack as many bodies as they can fit in my van,” said Bhijendra Dhigya, who drives a hearse from one New Delhi hospital to the crematorium.

The spike in deaths in New Delhi comes amid a broader virus surge throughout India, where authorities are reporting some 10,000 new infections each day and more than 300 deaths. Nevertheless, India lifted most of the remaining restrictions from its 10-week lockdown on June 8, the same day it recorded what at the time was its highest single-day death toll from the virus.