It is widely believed that a call to social service must have its trigger in deep observation, an odd experience or the influence of a mentor. Often, social service needs to be delivered at odd, out-of-the-way places most people never visit, to critically downtrodden people most people never think of, and under circumstances that may not usually be experienced by most people. Hence a powerful trigger is needed to motivate one to do unimaginable services to the uncared for. S.Sreedhar(58), a routine man of the world saw the trigger in the extraordinary book. The Senior Pontiff of the Kanchi Mutt – Shri Chandrasekhara Saraswathy or Maha Periyava as he is revered by many, exhorting dharmic living, makes a passionate appeal in Vol. 3 of “Dheivathin Kural” to give fitting funeral to the orphan who dies “unsung, unwept and unhounoured ”. When he read those lines of the Paramacharya something changed in Sreedhar permanently. As a result, many have benefitted from his extraordinary social service. Yes, Sreedhar benefits not the living, who may one day come to know of his help and probably record gratitude in return, but the dead who can never know who did what through the senses. And the theatre of action is the mortuary of the ghat.
One sometimes reads about unidentified bodies resulting from causes such as accidents or wanton efforts at self-destruction. And there are deaths occurring in destitute homes where it is not possible to trace any relatives of the dead to conduct the last rites. In the case of accidents, any dead bodies that remain unidentified after police investigation are preserved in mortuaries. Sometimes, bodies are brought to the morgue in highly decomposed state, sending stink to the high heavens. It is here that Sreedhar steps in, obeying the mandate of the Paraamacharya. He takes all calls, from morgue assistants, police officials, railway authorities and from any passerby, at all hours. From here Sreedhar takes over and the dead, from now on, suffer no wrongs.
Early Days at Chennai: Sreedhar was born and brought up in a village Nallamoor near Tindivanam, not far from Chennai. He came to Chennai for higher studies and to build a career. He and his cousin lived under the benign care of Kavi Yogi Maharishi Shudhananda Bharathi at Adyar. The urge to work for some good cause continued to burn in him. He read many religious works and the preaching of sages and scholars, which kindled his interest further. But Dheivathin Kural remained the most influential. Philosophically speaking, all humans are children of God, and no one bring along personal belongings at birth or takes them away at death. In a sense, all humans are orphans at all times, except for their transitory time on earth as humans. Sreedhar decided that he would work on arranging the burial of unclaimed bodies and the bodies of destitute, who breathed their last in homes run by NGOs. He first reached out to Vishranthi, an organization for the elderly and the aged destitute, run by Smt. Savitri Vaithi. According to Sreedhar “ The idea is to arrange funerals with basic rituals. Set aside cast, religion, etc. the departing soul deserves that last respects to be paid to the mortal remains. Instead of dumping bodies in a pit or consigning them to fire, an appropriate burial with prayers is what I intend to give them”.
Sreedhar decided on making this his mission with the support of Vishranthi in the initial years. As soon as he hears about a death, he would seek permission to take leave from his regular work place and perform the final rites, and then return to work.
Setting up a trust : After a few years, he started the ‘Anatha Pretha Kainkarya Trust ‘ (APKT). He felt that if he were to extend his services further, he needed to have a more formal approach, especially since handling unclaimed bodies required support. A few other people from different walks of life joined him in his service. To enable him to proceed further with his plans, he then tied up with well-known NGOs like SaiCharan, Aanandam, Kakkum Karangal, Nimmadhi, Premalaya, and some homes for war widows and the mentally challenged. Some of these institutions were orphanages, and in such cases, the last rites were performed in a way consistent with the religion of the deceased.
The biggest challenge lay in burial of unclaimed bodies in mortuaries. They bury unclaimed dead bodies after lengthy police procedures and clearance. Sreedhar mostly gets call from hospitals at indefinite time spans indicating a specific time plan for disposal. The most likely days are Sundays.
Teamwork: He now has the support of volunteers supporting him from different walks of life, like a retired senior police officials, young employees from IT companies and private firms. This author was touched when he had occasion to note that women too had become part of this service. This statement is not intended to reflect a gender bias but none can discount the hold of unbroken social belief that does not approve of woman visiting burial ground. Modern liberal attitudes have resulted in gradual erosion of such beliefs. When questioned, one must appreciate the courage and spirit behind this act of defying tradition and coming to fight human predicament even after cessation of life.
It is important to note that it is not an easy environment to provide service. Sreedhar and his volunteers fight against several odds in disposing of the dead on a decent manner and in keeping with customary rituals. Often, mortuaries impose serve limitation resulting from constrained resources. Legal and other delays often lead to serve decomposition of bodies. Staff may have work-related issues that may reflect adversely in their performance.
Sreedhar is considerate appreciative of the staff and workers at mortuaries, crematoriums and burial grounds. The public does not comprehend the occupational hazards they face, and thus, people who visit these places --- usually under some compulsion --- do not cooperate with the staff all the way. Sometimes, when they do mass burials, earth excavators may not be available for the some reason or the other. These are realities they have to put up with.
Sreedhar recalls that one cannot expect a warm reception from society when he works on arranging funerals for unclaimed bodies. He strongly feels that all volunteers must be humble and willing to work through all odds. Sometimes, a simple down to earth approach is required to resolve issues. He cited an example. One particular day during the monsoon, his team had carried a large number of bodies from a mortuary in a van. Typically, the schedule calls for all of them to assemble at the mortuary around 8 a.m., handle the formalities and leave in a van with the bodies received by 10 a.m. Once the burial ground is reached, Sreedhar is joined by his volunteers. The dead, where their faith is identifiable get a funeral according to the faith they practice. In other cases, volunteer Odhuvars begin reciting the Siva Puranam with total devotion befitting the occasion for about an hour. Mr. Arokiaraj a volunteer now gives a Christian prayer committing the soul to the Lord God. Then the copses get lowered, with all outward purification done and dressed up and covered with shroud, into the pit. After the pit is covered with earth, the team of volunteers signs in chorus ‘Ragu pathi Raghava Raja Ram’. Listening to Sreedhar, one would conclude that it is worth dying to deserve this kind of a final. The funeral given stands in sharp contrast to several unemotional send-off given by relatives, who perform, uninvolved, as though they are completing a painful duty. The team would typically complete the last rites by noon, when members would return to their respective homes.
On that particular day, they reached the mortuary at around 11 a.m. An excavator was required from elsewhere as the one regularly used in that ground failed. But the two staff member at the burial ground were running fever and could not do any work. Digging pits for corpses is not an activity that one can plan out in advance, especially during monsoon. At about 3 p.m., they decided that they would have to dig the pit themselves, as it was not appropriate to keep the bodies out for long. While they were digging, their van had to leave, and they worked at getting the bodies out. Sreedhar recalled that not only was his team handling the labor comfortably, but also the ground staff members, without heed to their illness, were helping in a spirited manner. Leaders need to demonstrate their skill by keeping workers together and Sreedhar excels in doing that.
It bears mentioning here that Sreedhar recently retired from the post of Vice President – Operations of a large, well-known financial services company. One of his friends informed this author that there were occasion when Sreedhar would take his coat off and leave the office, finish the last rites of corpse or more and come right back to work. Sreedhar demonstrates commitment to the cause and the desire to live by practicing what he believes. Over the last three decades Sreedhar has performed the last rites for 1430 persons with solemnity.
Funding: Each cremation costs between Rs. 1000 and 1500. APKT manages these expenses from its funds. During the initial days, Sreedhar used his personal money on several occasions.
There was one touching experience he had while doing this. A woman who had an income of barely Rs. 12 a days contributed one day’s earning to him. She was a stranger, and he had no sought funds from her. She volunteered on hearing about his services from neighborhood sources. Sreedhar feels that funding would never be an issue for him in extending this services.
Other Sevarthis (Service providers): Sreedhar mentioned to this author that many people offer the same service as he does. A lady by name Neila, has been burying dead bodies from government hospital for a decade along with her two sons. Trivikram Mahadeva in Bangalore has been doing this doe more than four decades. A flower vendor in Coimbatore, Shanta Kumar, is reportedly doing the same thing, and so are Umar Ali and his friends at Udamalpet. Reports also state that the Chennai based advocate Venkatasubramaniam’s ‘Jeevatma Kainkaryam Trust’ offers these services while Raghavan, a retired Chennai Telephones employee, offers his Chromepet Gayathri Trust’s services depending upon need.
All such good work need to be commended and supported. Some of the people involved in this kind of work have been recognized by government and towering personalities. The point here is that Sreedhar is one among the few who undertake these distinctly humane activities. What is common to all of them is the trigger that caused them to turn inwards, and carry out socially significant work with humanity, focus and in utter disregard od care returns. A good cause attracts team support and strength for execution.
Family involvement: Sreedhar’s family has demonstrated this spirit. His grandfather listened to Paramacharya’s father who was an Inspector of Schools in the early years of 19th century. The sage’s father advised Sreedhar’s grandfather to start a primary school in their native village. Paying heed to the advice the family set up a primary school which has rendered several decades of service and is going strong now, under a different management. As Sreedhar grew up, serving fellow humans became his desire, but he wanted to do so alongside providing for his family’s needs by working. He did good and gainful employment and went on to become a Vice President of a financial company. After the initial years of service, the demand on his time and energies began to increase and he started allotting more time mainly to his social activity and to a lesser extent to his family. His wife extends her unstinted support, and more surprisingly, encourages her children to join their father in his service. His elder son is an active member of his team. His younger son lives abroad but participates whenever he comes to India. According to Sreedhar, it is critical to get family understating and support for such activities.
Conclusion: Sreedhar has more dreams, like assisting severe cancer patients, renovation of old temples. The Kanchi seer’s writing influenced him to take up the odd service of burial arrangement with a sense of pride and he desire to pay due to last respects to those who otherwise remain unclaimed. This kind of meaningful engagement can co-exist with the normal passions for building a cancer and sustaining a family, when one has an understanding spouse and supportive children. If more people like Sreedhar were to extend their hands, this world of the living would become a better place by giving peace to the dead.