Dealing with death, daily

gravediggerA gravedigger is to a corpse what a mother is to a child, says Sampath, who works at the Krishnampet burial ground behind the Light House. “You have to tend to the body with great care,” he says.

Besides digging graves , their job involves building stretchers for carrying the body, preparing the pyre and clearing the remains after the body is fully burnt. They also collect ashes from the gasifiers. “We handle all kinds of corpses like old men, children, AIDS victims, dog bite deaths, suicide cases…” he says nonchalantly.

So is the job depressing?

It only seems natural when the man, with his sturdy build and rugged face says he is used to it. But further probing shows he is not completely insensitive to the gravity of death or the pain of loss others feel. He confesses that handling the burnt body of a dowry harassment victim once disturbed him a lot.

Paulraj, who works in a cemetery in Kasimedu, says visitors often cry before the graves of their beloved ones. “Two days ago, a woman who had lost her son came here and was crying bitterly. I sat by her side and tried my best to console her,” he says.

Gravedigging is a family occupation for certain communities belonging to the Scheduled Castes. “My father did it, my grandfather did it, my great grandfather did it and now I do it…” says Jayaraman, a 50-year old, who has been in the job for four decades now. Ask him if he wants his son to follow the family line and without a second thought, he declares, “No.”

Traditionally known as ‘vettiyan,’ the gravediggers working for the Chennai Corporation are now referred to as ‘mayana udavialargal’ (crematorium assistants). This was after the civic body regularised their employment in July 2007. The step has brought a visible enhancement in their self-esteem.

But not all is well. Paulraj says almost all crematorium workers are alcoholics. “They get drunk to become numb to the smell of rotting carcasses,” he says.

Also the work can be hazardous to health. Graveyard keeper Sasikumar recounts how once the body of a person with a pacemaker in his heart had burst while being burnt. He says bodies that undergo post-mortem are wrapped in thick plastic and don’t decompose when buried.

“When we dig those spots for use later, the body would not have decomposed and emits harmful gases.”

Several burial grounds in the city have vast spaces with plenty of green cover and none of their characteristic eeriness. Sampath says laughingly, “Many young people who visit the Citi Centre think the neighbouring ground is a garden and stray in. When we tell them that it is a graveyard, they get scared and run away.”

When asked if gravediggers are afraid themselves, they say no. But the Krishnampet burial ground, for one, has two dogs for protection, not from ghouls, but from miscreants.

Sampath says three months ago two men on a motorbike entered the ground and tried to bury a male baby alive.

The mouth of the baby had been stuffed with cotton, but it managed to cough and the workers were alerted. “We informed the police immediately and they took the boy away. The two men had meanwhile escaped on their bikes,” he says.

But be it day or night, gravediggers have to carry out their work. “We do have fixed working hours, but then who can predict when it is time to dig someone’s grave?” asks Sasikumar.

(Originally published in The Hindu, Chennai edition, dated Aug 24, 2008)

Published by Vidya Venkat

Ph.D. candidate in Anthropology at SOAS, London. Formerly, journalist at The Hindu, Chennai.

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