Published: 26th July 2021
Meet Priya Patil, a Maharashtra student who has driven a funeral hearse for over 300 COVID victims
Crematorium workers have been her support since the beginning. They tell her it is perhaps logical to fear the living but there is no need to fear the dead
A day before July 23, a Friday that most people in Maharashtra won't forget in a while, 19-year-old BSc student Priya Patil was doing something that arguably no teenager would want to do — she was ferrying bodies of COVID victims to crematoriums in a hearse. That day was probably when she and her team crossed the 300-mark as far as COVID funerals were concerned — a day later, the floods hit with a vengeance and her own house was flooded with water.
“There was nearly 3 ft water in my house, and maybe about 10 to 11 ft in the compound. I could only attend to one dead body that day,” Patil says. Even though she couldn’t drive around — Patil is the one who is the hearse's designated driver — the very next day, she was back on the ground and she helped cremate a 26-year-old pregnant woman and two other dead bodies. That was Saturday, July 24.
At one point, the worst floods that people of Kolhapur and Sangli districts had seen were in 2005. And then the devastating deluge of 2019 happened, where lakhs of people were evacuated to safety by the authorities, lives were lost and thousands of houses were destroyed. People had just about recovered from the trauma, when COVID struck. And now, the districts are under water again.
By Sunday, the water level in the city had started receding, and Patil was on her way back home to assess the damage that had occurred in the last 72 hours. Those three days had been a nightmare for Patil and many like her. She and her family took shelter at the house of Harshal Surve, who owns the hearse Patil drives. Surve (42) decided to start a hearse service last year to help those who had succumbed to COVID. “At that point, many were distributing food and helping out people in other ways. But nobody was willing to go near the dead bodies,” he says. He decided to take it upon himself to do the difficult job and purchased a small van for it. “We took permission from the municipal corporation for our group of four to five people to operate, and Priya is the youngest,” he says.
Why did a 19-year-old decide to deal with dead bodies?
There's always a personal reason behind some of the people's biggest decisions. “It was last year that my father’s close friend died of COVID. I was very close to him,” Patil says. The aftermath of his death was a traumatic experience for her friends and family and it took a lot for them to convince people to help give their loved one a dignified send-off. And that changed everything for her.
“I realised then that each one of us has some responsibility towards the society we live in,” Patil says. She and her father decided to help others deal with the loss of a loved one, and what came after. But volunteering isn't always as simple as showing up. In India, there are hurdles, especially when Patil said she wanted to drive a hearse and help people lay their dead to rest. “We knocked around several government offices but there was no response,” she says.
People were more apprehensive because she was a girl, and “no one wanted to take the responsibility.” However, fate had different plans for her. After several appeals, authorities for the municipal corporation reached out to Surve and told him that a young girl wanted to volunteer. "They said she might not be able to handle a big vehicle and that it would be better if she volunteers with us because we have a small van,” Surve recalls, "We told her what the job is and how to do it and she was good to go," he says.
Behind the wheel
Her first day was not as easy as it sounds though. “I lost my sleep after the first day,” Priya says. “They asked me to pick up a dead body and put it on the pyre,” she says. “I caught a glimpse of the bones of the dead on the first day and that was scary,” says tells us. However, crematorium workers have been her support since the beginning. They tell her it is perhaps logical to fear the living but there is no need to fear the dead. “They told me it can be torture if one keeps thinking about it and that it is better to shut all thoughts about it once the job is done,” Priya says.
Today, with a sense of accomplishment, she says she is now used to it and the work gets done without any unnecessary fear. She got her first vaccine jab last month and is waiting for her second shot.
When you're working with the dead, there's never a 'pleasant' day at work. Surve says a little before the floods, the team was transferring the body of a middle-aged lady from a hospital to a crematorium. This was particularly difficult to deal with for the entire team, including Patil, and the reason was compelling. The middle-aged woman was the mother of a deaf-and-mute girl. “Her daughter was pointing at the lady and crying. She kept crying and signalling us that the lady is her mother. She (Patil) was a witness to all of this and all of us were very emotional,” the hearse owner tells us.
What about her academics?
A second-year BSc student in Kolhapur, her father works with the Maharashtra Industrial Development Corporation unit in nearby Shiroli and her mother is an insurance agent. Her mornings are spent helping her mother out at home with her insurance work and she attends classes for a while in the afternoon. She has written her semester exams and online classes make it feasible for her to dedicate most of her time to this social cause. “My professors know the work I am doing and they are very supportive. My friends help me cover whatever I have missed out in classes,” Patil says.