A friend’s wife was once admitted with severe burns, she had caught fire while cooking alone at home. After admitting her at a govt. hospital where I was a student, my devastated friend called me for help. Their whole family was in a wordless shock. The couple had married a year earlier. The doctors had calculated the percentage of burns and predicted a very poor chance of survival. My friend was dead -scared of it all, his only consolation was that she had clearly stated in her dying declaration that she was alone at home, and it was by mistake that her saree had caught fire.
She passed away in three days. Till then, my friend sat on the stairs near burns ward, clutching his head. She was shifted to the mortuary for post-mortem examination, mandatory in every medico-legal case.
The drama began.
In a usual post-mortem examination, after the external examination of the dead body is complete, the skull, chest and abdomen are cut open, and after removing samples from stomach, intestines and small pieces of some internal organs, sewn back with needle and thread.
The mortuary servant, frankly stinking of country liquor, called my friend in and told him the rates of “routine” versus “special” treatment of the body, in artificially sympathetic words that hurt more than genuine disregard. The “special” included clean, hidden cuts not visible later . The suturing back after the post mortem exam could be done ‘routinely’ like everyone else, or ‘specially’ with care to look better, so that the sutures were carefully hidden. For a ‘special’ treatment, more money would be required.
Disturbed and ashamed, I offered my friend a suggestion that I will tell my professors and have the servant punished, but he declined. He was mature and knew the ways of the world.
“Take good care of her, don’t hurt her too much” he said, while handing over the money without any questions. The first servant went in. A second one came out.
“Shall I use the old used bedsheet to cover her up, or do you have a new one?” asked the second one.
He took some more money to get a new bedsheet.
As we awaited a provisional certificate to take her for cremation, a man came to us from outside the mortuary. “Do you have a hearse already or do you need one? Because I am leaving now, my duty is over. You will have to arrange outside. It was 6 PM already. We asked him what would he charge. His answer, as expected, was ten times higher than a taxi car would charge a passenger. As he said, there was no option.
My friend’s family, all mourning, stood outside the mortuary where there was no place or shade for any relatives to sit or stand. many shocked and inconsolable relatives wailed in groups, some collapsed. Some stunned faces stared at nothing, others at the ground.
As we entered the cremation site, few young and old men actually caught hold of our hands, pulling us in different directions, claiming that they were the official, the best, etc.
After we showed the certificate for the permission for cremation, we were allowed to take the body inside. The final chants started. Someone brought a “rate chart” of wood quality and quantity, and every other commodity required for cremation rated far above any market. The marketing strategy was universally the same “Do you want best for the dead or low quality?”.
The stunned family went on distributing money to one and all who asked for it. Here, at the last place one can visit upon the earth, there was no concern either for life or for humanity.
After customary rituals, the fire rose to offer the final mercy to her body.
Just as the fresh bouts of agonized cries shattering the skies sank into heart wrenching sobs of many, my friend, who till now had kept his woe frozen, started crying openly, looking at the pyre.
Someone approached him again, stinking of cheap liquor and much more.
“Sir, I will protect the pyre overnight and collect the bones tomorrow morning, if you want. Otherwise dogs, cats or birds may eat them up” he said, “But you will have to pay me all the money now”. (Ashes / Bones are to be immersed in river / Ganges after the cremation). He took his share.
He was nowhere to be seen next morning, but he had collected the bones and left with his friend, who said we must wait till the “bone collector” returns, because he didn’t know what the deal was, or if the money was already paid. Paying him too, my friend collected the remains, and returned.
When there is a big wound, smaller wounds do not hurt.
While the traditions are so meaningful, their execution has become so commercialised. Better facilities are required to understand the state of mind of a bereaved family, and to dissuade “extraction” of more money in that weakened state of mind. Better understanding of the mourning family and friends at all these stages will go a long way in lessening their sufferings.
© Dr. Rajas Deshpande