Inside Kashmir’s COVID Funerals—Where Fears & Tears Compete for Farewell

As hushed COVID funerals have become the new normal, Kashmir Observer’s photo chief embarks on an uneasy journey to capture the pandemic farewell scenes in the valley’s haunting graveyards.

 Abid Bhat

BEFORE the virus turns vicious and leaves them lifeless and cold in their unattended beds, most of them reach hospital gates only to face the alleged patent indifference to their plight. And once they depart, the microbe even denies them a decent mourning.

Desperate times, desperate measures as an old-school adage is acceptable, but the way deadly microbe is collapsing the community compassion, which Kashmiris always safeguarded, even during the days of harrowing offensive in their recent past, is only breeding anxiety on ground.

For any photojournalist, the contemporary COVID crisis assignment is worse than covering a war.

Unlike war, the COVID conflict has already paralysed and plagued the larger compassionate community response.

And this’s something new in my 20-odd years of photojournalism career in Kashmir’s thick and thin that I witnessed and covered.

Before the official pallbearers in personal protective equipment lift the dead, the COVID consignment in the form of a plywood box starts taking a shape.

Unlike the casket-makers of the nightmarish nineties, these COVID box-makers are today struggling for their own survival as well.

They desert the scene even before the dead arrives on a stretcher.

The COVID victim is boxed and layered in shroud and sheet before the lid is nailed and shut forever.

That’s the last time when a departed can be seen.

The boxed body stays in the deserted hospital yard, waiting for an official clearance, in company of a sole family mourner.

In between comes the fumigator for the final round of sanitization.

Unlike the usual chest-beating and tear-jerking farewell scenes in the valley, the dead is now being mourned in whispers.

These scenes are unlike anything Kashmir witnessed before.

Funerals were always seas of sentiments in the valley, with people from all walks of life bidding farewell to their fallen brethren — including non-migrant Kashmiri Pandits, whose lonely passage continues to draw a spontaneous community response.

More than anything else, funeral assemblies would traditionally serve as the cathartic gatherings, where people would unburden their hearts while bidding farewell to the dead with moist eyes.

But now, the “invisible enemy” has even snapped the very familiar act of mourning in Kashmir.

By the time the official nod comes, the pallbearers leave in an ambulance carrying the dead to his final resting place.

In times of virus, even the graveyard silence is escalating and devouring the signature sentiments towards the dead.

But even as cemeteries remain bereft of mourner footfall today, one man is ensuring his perpetual presence: gravedigger — tasked with digging the 8-feet long pit, at some distant corner of the cemetery.

Such is perhaps the fear of virus that the dead is now losing the prime spot in his family graveyard.

The fallen sons are hardly finding the final resting place at the side of their departed parents. The virus is clearly denying the grave reunion!

Once done with digging, the gravedigger who serves as the traditional funeral director of Kashmir walks away, for the fear of the killer germ that the dead is supposed to carry even in his boxed form.

Dusting his clothes, the gravedigger leaves the turf for the emergency undertakers of Kashmir.

As these burial men offer final prayers for the departed, cops enforce the COVID guidelines from distance.

But while they pray and police, the PPE-clad relatives fight their fears and tears for farewell.

These frames are indeed new normal.

There’re no expressive eyes visible in the plastic protection, neither are there final farewell moments.

It’s all mechanic; following some strict script—where strangers ferry dead, and family stands as spectators.

The undertakers finally place the box at the mound of soil dug from the pit.

With the help of ropes, they intern the boxed dead and fill the pit with soil.

Even after the burial, the family remains fearful in approaching the grave, which in-turn makes it an unsettling assignment in times of pandemic.

And with that, the COVID funeral concludes.

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