They’re involved in the community cause when even blood relations aren’t coming forward for the final farewell of their loved ones.
The call came when Bashir Ahmad was battling a bug in home isolation. But more than his own wellbeing, he was getting restless for his ailing elder admitted in the Covid-designated hospital at the edge of Kashmir’s largest graveyard in Rainawari locality.
The caller sounded hesitant, and was carefully measuring his words in a languid tone: “We’re sorry to inform you… your father couldn’t make it…”
Gasping for breath, Bashir’s 65-year-old father breathed his last in the JLNM hospital. He died as another lonely Kashmiri, consigned to the soil, without being collectively mourned.
“We couldn’t even give him the final bath,” Bashir says with a regretful face. “He was just wrapped in a shroud and buried.”
The dead always received ritualistic send-off in the valley “but the helplessness of these times will haunt us whenever we remember our deceased,” Bashir laments.
The Covid-19 is the biggest nightmare of any survivor or to those who’ve lost their loved ones to the disease. There’re injuries pandemic has inflicted upon humankind and the battle is not over yet. It has been months and the news of pandemic deaths has not stopped coming.
“Nowadays you can’t even find mortician for the non-Covid deaths,” says Fayaz Ahmad, a Srinagarite mourning the loss of his mother who lately died naturally. “You’ve to make them believe that it’s not Covid death.”
Not far from where Bashir mourns his pandemic loss presently, a father and his son became two more victims of the vicious virus. The departed duo didn’t receive a proper farewell as none could come forward due to the Covid terror.
Moved by their fate and that of others—abandoned by their loved ones in virulent times—Sameena decided to be the helping hand for her distressed community.
The 43-year-old woman from Srinagar’s Baghwanpur area had experienced the mourning of family in isolation and their helplessness for giving a decent farewell to their “martyrs”.
But what makes her volunteerism a heroic act in an “apocalyptic situation” is her resolve to fight the invisible enemy making deaths “untouchable” in the city and countryside today.
“We’re ready to shroud and give final bath to those who died due to the Covid,” she announced her Covid-warrior role with a video message lately.
On the close heels of that video message posted on social media, Sameena received a call from a family pleading — if she could give a final bath to the deceased who died due to the Covid.
Her reply reassured the wailing voice: “You’ve asked for my help, now it’s my obligation to be at your service.”
Following proper protocol, the abaya-clad crisis-manager came out on the manned streets—facing vigilant policing and street desolation—and shrouded the dead as per the rituals.
“Having proper funeral according to the rituals at least ease the suffering of those who’ve lost their loved ones to the Covid-19,” Sameena says.
Before the pandemic phase, death used to be an active community affair in the valley. Coming together and giving the mourner a shoulder to cry on was an act of solidarity. But Covid has made it an act of a ‘walled wailing’.
“Covid-19 has isolated families in sorrow,” Sameena continues. “People in pandemic now offer virtual presence. But one has to help the society to come out of this emotional-enveloping era.”
On his part, Sameena’s husband, Syed Abid Hussain, has already shrouded and buried scores of Covid patients.
“It’s the religious obligation and we can’t run away from the crisis,” Abid, 47, says.
Though government guidelines clearly state that there’s unlikely to be an increased risk of Covid from a dead body to health workers or family members following SOP while handling the body, the couple quarantines themselves after each farewell.
“Safety,” Abid says, “is always our priority.”
But what disheartens the couple is the wave of reluctance in the landscape where funeral participation was always a community concern.
“Now people even fear to come forward and lift and lay deceased to the final resting place,” Abid says.
“But if there’ll be a call from any non-Muslim, we’ll perform his/her last rites as per their religion.”
And for this cause, the couple’s two sons are equally at the forefront today.
Both of their sons were raised in a very realistic manner unlike many of their contemporaries—‘groomed in greenhouses’, making most of them misfit in the long run.
As a conscious father, Abid used to send his sons to observe how the bathing and shrouding are done to the departed when they were kids.
“That experience made me stand for easing people’s suffering, especially after that Zadibal incident [where father-son died due to Covid and didn’t receive proper farewell],” says Syed Mehdi, the couple’s eldest son.
Soon after making up his mind for the cause, the 24-year-old received a call from an anxious family asking for the guidance on phone, but Mehdi instead decided to give the final bath to the deceased himself.
“It’s not easy to shroud and shower dead,” Syed Hussain, Mehdi’s college-goer younger brother, says. “So, I also go with him.”
Back in his seclusion, Bashir Ahmad can’t stop thinking about his father who was packed in a bag and bought to the graveyard for hush-hush and hasty burial from the hospital.
“He didn’t receive proper farewell,” the son laments. “My family longed for the last glimpse and wanted to send him off with proper customs. Wish someone could’ve arranged that final farewell for us!”
To prevent Bashir-type lamentations, the family of four is going out of their way to ensure proper burial of their fallen brethren. They’re apparently saving the sentimental ship from sinking when the families are facing emotional breakdowns for dumping their deceased loved ones for the fear of the virus.
“Everyone deserves a decent farewell,” says Mehdi, a professional software developer.
“Lately, we got this call from the Khankhah area of Srinagar, where a family asked us to be ready in case they couldn’t get a mortician. We told them what we’re telling everyone these days: ‘We’re always ready for our larger family’.”
Adil Amin Akhoon is the Managing Editor at The Mountain Ink.