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How unclaimed ashes of the Covid dead found a dignified resting place in Bhopal

The Chief Minister of Madhya Pradesh, Shivraj Singh Chouhan planting the first sapling the new park

The 1662 version of the Book of Common Prayer states, “earth to earth, ashes to ashes, dust to dust”, and literally that is what has taken place in a new park located in Bhopal in Madhya Pradesh. The mortal remains of 6,000 people, who were cremated after dying in the second wave of Covid-19 pandemic, are now part of the soil of this proposed vast green area.

It all started at a nearby Bhadbhada Vishram Ghat crematorium where a large number of urns containing the ashes of cremated people remained uncollected. This became a cause of worry for the Manager of the Ghat crematorium Mamtesh Sharma, as space was falling short.

In an article which appeared in the South China Morning Post, he said: “At the height of the second wave after we had been burning 100 to 150 bodies a day, we had to keep making space. We added more and more lockers in which we keep the urns. Once we made space for 500 lockers. Then we added another locker room. Now there isn’t any space left but we need space for other cremations.”

Now, according to the Hindu traditions and rituals, the ashes should have been immersed in a river, and in the case of Bhopal, it should have been the Narmada. Being concerned with the issue of pollution, Sharma realised that if all the ashes that have so far accumulated were immersed, it would be a very large quantity. To cremate a body, it takes nearly 500 kilograms of wood and after the cremation, 50 kg of ash is left.

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Seized with this problem, Sharma and his team hit upon a novel idea as they decided to use the ashes and mix it with sand, soil, cow dung and wood sawdust and disperse it in a nearby wasteland with an area of 12,000 square feet. Going beyond, they also decided to turn this patch of land into a memorial park dedicated to the dead.

Thus having decided, last week, they went ahead and organised Hindu priests who while chanting mantras, draped garlands around some of the urns with ashes. These were mixed with other substances and spread on the ground.

The State Chief Minister, Shivraj Singh Chouhan did the honours of planting the first sapling in the area.

Plantation of saplings in progress

The area will soon be planted with many saplings using the Japanese technique of Miyawaki. In this in order to create dense woods rapidly, saplings are planted very near each other, thereby ensuring that as they receive sunlight from the top, making them tend to grow upwards and not on the sides.

The torrid times which Sharma witnessed from the months of April to June is something he will never forget. The raging Coronavirus killed hundreds, making the crematoria unable to cope with the deluge of bodies.

Recalling those times, he told SCMP: “Some families were so frightened when they brought their dead that they left the body hurriedly at the entrance and left, leaving my staff to perform the final rites.” This is why the ashes of 6,000 people remaining uncollected did not surprise him at all. With the twin factors of fear and panic taking hold of the people, they virtually forsake traditions and rituals. In some cases the restrictions of movement and transport due to lockdown made it impossible for people to reach while in other instances it was the fear of contracting the deadly disease that kept them away from their departed ones. Many did come but took only some bones and not the large quantity of ashes.

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Sharma, recollecting that many people who survived the Covid had told him that they would plant trees and take care of them, hoped that with the turning of the wasteland into a park, it will be an appropriate memorial for those who were cremated without proper rituals.

Thus returning to mother Earth, the mortal remains will find solace and peace having departed the world caught up in an unprecedented pandemic which wrecked the semblance of a normal life!

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