Woman lights COVID victims’ pyres to keep on living

Pandemic does not scare the crematorium caretaker of Thrikkakara municipality, uncertain future does

Seleena Michael has never baulked in the face of a hard life. Neither when her husband walked out on her 20 years ago abandoning their two little daughters, nor when she donned the unconventional role of a crematorium caretaker six years later to feed her young family.

Now 57, the frail-looking, but iron-willed Seleena soldiers on as she lights the funeral pyres of COVID-19 victims in Personal Protection Equipment (PPE) kit at the crematorium of the Thrikkakara municipality.

She has faced immense hardships in life as a single mother to be scared by the prospect of death by a dreaded pandemic. “Fear does not feed empty stomachs or repay mounting debts,” says Seleena nonchalantly.

Problem of PPE kits

Her house next to the crematorium at Athani Junction, near Kakkanad, was built on a bank loan of ₹25 lakh, which got defaulted owing to the pandemic. Life took an even worse turn as both her sons-in-law, drivers by profession, lost their jobs in the pandemic leaving her to provide for her younger daughter and family who stays with her.

Amidst it came the added burden of handling the bodies of COVID-19 victims. “There have been days when I had to conduct three or four such funerals. Sometimes the families provide the PPE kit. Otherwise, I have to buy it,” she says.

While she usually does not light pyres after 6 p.m. the condition does not apply to COVID victims. She has not yet faced any resentment from her neighbourhood for handling bodies of infected people though she has no guarantee that the attitude will stay unchanged.

Livelihood loss

But Seleena remains undaunted. She has for long ignored others’ reservations about her job. “I don’t have to convince anyone about my life. People who are so worried about my job should help me take care of my family,” has been her defiant response all along.

As the municipality plans to convert the crematorium into a gas-based one, Seleena, who has been running it on an annual tender, stares at a potential loss of livelihood. But as has been her wont, she will cross that bridge on reaching there.

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