According to the official policy in Saudi Arabia, mortal remains can be repatriated by adhering to health ministry guidelines, which exist on paper. But on the ground repatriation of dead bodies on cargo flights is a grim and contentious issue
It was a most heart-wrenching scene when Bejugam Janaki boarded the flight for India from Saudi Arabia where she had spent most of her life with her husband. Unlike earlier occasions when visiting India was exciting and full of anticipation—gifts for loved ones back home would never be in short supply—and pre-boarding phone calls with relative would abound, this time tears would not stop flowing from Janaki’s eyes.
Instead of meeting family and friends, Janaki had only one thought on her mind—how to carry ashes for immersion of her late husband, who had died of Covid-19 in the port city of Jeddah?
Janaki, 58, hailing from Hyderabad, had lost her husband, Dasharat, last month due to Covid-19. Her situation showcased the agony of bereavement faced by non-Muslim families of NRIs in Saudi Arabia.
Undoubtedly, these are traumatic times, which have caught most governments on the wrong foot. In Janaki’s case, she had herself battled with the virus and defeated it. But her husband did not make it. There was no one to look after her outside the hospital premises, leaving her with no option but to remain there for weeks. From the hospital, she unsuccessfully tried to arrange the cremation of her deceased husband.
Typical of many NRI families, Janaki and Dashrat’s children had settled in the USA, from where they failed to get a Saudi visa to catch the final glimpse of their late father.
It is hard to console a grieving wife who lost her husband in alien land, especially when transporting his mortal remains is an issue.
According to official policy, mortal remains can be repatriated by adhering to health ministry guidelines, which exist on paper. But on the ground repatriation of dead bodies on cargo flights is a grim and contentious issue. Problems such as disinfection of aircraft, health monitoring of the personnel who handled the dead body cargo, among others routinely come into play.
Then there are some roadblocks typical to puritan Saudi Arabia, where cremation of bodies is not allowed. Instead, non-Muslims can be buried in designated places in select cities.
Caught in the cross-hairs of religion, bureaucracy and red tape, grief-stricken families such as that of late Dasharat are unable to carry mortal remains of their loved ones. Neither can their ashes be brought back home for river immersion so that there is a closure to the tragedy, which has unfolded in a foreign land.
(Irfan Mohammed has contributed this story exclusively to India Narrative. He is based in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia. All views expressed in the above report are personal)