Dr. Anna Kuppuswamy is a neuroscientist at Queen Square, London. Salem, India is her maternal ancestral home and she regularly visits Salem where S. Kalaivani runs the Life Trust.
What happens after you die, ironically, is possibly the most important part of your life, when one views life from an Indian perspective. This probably is true of many cultures around the world across different ages. Depending on religious affiliation Indians cremate, bury or even leave your body to the vultures! There are stringent and elaborate procedures that need to be followed to ensure your soul rests in peace. Yet, the one thing you have no direct control over is what happens to your body after you die. You must rely on others to carry out your last rites and people go to great lengths to make sure this happens.
However, what if you die unexpectedly in a location far from home with no way of identifying your body? What if you do not have any surviving member of your family or friends to carry out your last rites? How can you be sure you will die at the right place at the right time for events that follow your death to run smoothly? The answer is, you cannot. After all, the one thing humans are yet to acquire is the ability to accurately predict death, bar a few cases of intentional ending of life. The plain truth of the matter is, at any given point in time there are a number of people who die at the ‘wrong’ place at the ‘wrong’ time, or do not have anyone to perform their last rites or simply cannot afford it. What fate awaits them? Who cares? Someone does!
In Salem, a rural town in central Tamil Nadu, a southern state in India, S. Kalaivani and her team of dedicated volunteers have taken it upon themselves to provide a proper burial for every ‘unclaimed’ body in Salem and the surrounding villages. I recently had the opportunity to talk to this soft-spoken, unassuming lady on a mission. I was curious to learn how she chose this cause over umpteen other equally worthy causes to dedicate her life to.
Kalaivani started the Life Trust, a charitable trust in 2005 with the aim of helping the poor and needy, like many other charitable organisations in the state. A few years on she came to know of an elderly couple in the neighbourhood who for many years had been segregated from the rest of the community for reasons that are beyond the scope of this article. The lady became seriously ill and the elderly man was unable to care for her as he was himself in poor health. No one came to their aid and the lady passed away at home. The elderly man was in no fit state to organise a funeral for his dead wife. This was the moment Kalaivani decided that her charitable organisation, Life Trust, will concentrate on providing a free funeral service to those who would otherwise not receive a proper funeral.
With time the service expanded and currently the Trust carries out up to 20 funerals a month. They deal with a wide variety of cases and Kalaivani recounted in vivid detail the sad state of affairs with unclaimed bodies. Any unidentified, unclaimed body normally ends up in the police morgue. Before the Life Trust was in operation, the unidentified bodies were left to languish in the police morgue until such a time when a few unclaimed bodies accumulated. The police would then get the council rubbish collection van to collect the bodies who then bury them in a mass grave.
Burying unidentified bodies comes with its own set of risks and problems. Kalaivani mentions the dire state in which she finds some bodies, maggot-ridden and partly decomposed, lying in a ditch under layers of garbage. In instances like these the police sometimes decide to do a postmortem onsite and request the Trust to take the body for burial. With meagre resources Kalaivani and her team, sometimes at the risk of their own health and immense personal distress carry on with their job.
What if relatives come looking for a loved one months after their death? Life Trust meticulously documents every single body they bury with full details of the burial spot. They photograph and write down the circumstances in which they obtained the body. They liaise with the local police closely to determine all avenues of identification have been exhausted. In some instances identification does not necessarily lead to return of bodies. For reasons beyond the scope of this piece, sometimes a body may be deliberately abandoned. With growing awareness of their existence, the Life Trust receive calls directly from the public when a suspected unclaimed body has been spotted. Their services have now been regularly called for by the local police who have stopped using rubbish collection vans for disposal of bodies. In a country like India with diverse religious beliefs and customs it is almost impossible to provide a funeral service for the unidentified according to their personal beliefs. Moreover, by law, all unidentified bodies must be buried and not cremated. Life Trust only buries their bodies and never cremates the remains.
Kalaivani says she has been incredibly lucky to obtain the support of both the local government and philanthropists who have donated generously to help her Trust acquire a dedicated ambulance to transport bodies. She also points out the number of volunteers ranging from students to doctors who give up some of their time to help Kalaivani provide this valuable service. In a corner of the world where people are staunchly religious, where rites for the dead are steeped in tradition, the service provided by the Life Trust is irreplaceable.