A phone call from an acquaintance in the middle of the raging coronavirus pandemic has changed the life of Syed Jalaluddin Zafar, a social activist in Hyderabad. In that moment, he found a true calling in life, a motivation that has now become his life mission.
The caller told Zafar about their common friend abandoning the body of his father who died due to COVID-19 and refusing to make arrangements for burial. “I was shattered when I heard this. How can a son abandon the body of his father and leave the family in the lurch? I was moved to tears and in that very moment I wanted to do something, not just for the family of my friend but for all other COVID-19 patients who die uncared and who are denied dignity in death,” Zafar said.
Zafar and his friends soon swung into action. “We went to the house of my friend and took the body to the burial ground. After necessary religious formalities, we buried the body in the graveyard,” recalls Zafar.
At a time when fear of contracting the disease is forcing families to run away from burying or cremating even their loved ones who died due to COVID-19, Zafar and his team of nearly 60 volunteers are bravely taking up the task of handling the bodies, defying the stigma.
Asked how their families reacted to their work, Zafar, who is the president of the local NGO ‘Youth Welfare Telangana’ (YWT), said, “Initially they were apprehensive and reluctant. We had to convince them about the noble purpose of our mission. Now, our family members cooperate with us.”
The team has so far performed the final rites of over 170 COVID-19 victims at different graveyards in and around the city. “Religion is not a consideration for us. We will follow the religious customs of the families concerned and conduct the final rites accordingly,” Zafar says.
If the body is of a Muslim, ‘namaz-e-janaza’ (funeral prayer) is offered near the graveyard before the burial. Usually, the funeral prayer is offered at the mosque but the bodies of those who died due to COVID-19 are not allowed into mosques at many places.
“Our team is now working in and around Hyderabad. We are planning to extend our services to other districts in Telangana like Nizamabad, Adilabad, Mahabubnagar and Zaheerabad,” the activist said.
Giving a dignified burial to someone following the norms as per their faith gives closure to their family members. This is always a tough and challenging task for many especially for those who cannot afford to do so. The coronavirus pandemic has made things worse for many families.
“Every day, we get two to three calls requesting for help. After completing the mandatory formalities with authorities, we get down to the task of performing final rites for the dead while following the COVID-19 protocol,” Zafar said. The YWT has doctors, lawyers, engineers, and businessmen as volunteers. Another city-based NGO has provided two ambulances for the team to transport the dead bodies.
“Unfortunately, the municipal corporation staff involved in the transportation of bodies from hospital to the burial ground are looting the grieving families. This is one of the reasons why many of the bodies are left unclaimed at the hospitals,” the activist says.