Kathmandu: Subash Karki took charge of the Pashupati Electric Crematorium on May 16, 2020. That day, Nepal recorded two new cases of the novel coronavirus and the first death.
On June 16, one month after Karki took charge, the country recorded 380 new cases. Little did Karki know that the pandemic would blow out of proportion so quickly. Epidemiologists wondered if the virus had already coursed through the communities. They might have been right. The pandemic soon spiralled out of control. The frequency of the arrival of dead bodies increased in the crematorium.
These days, Karki receives an average of 80 dead bodies per day.
As the chief coordinator of the electric crematorium, it is Karki’s job to incinerate the dead bodies that come to Pashupati. “Being a head of a crematorium is not an easy job,” says Karki, who is 31, “especially during a pandemic.”
At first, when the dead bodies began to come in dozens, it was an “emotional rollercoaster” experience for him. The sheer number of people that lost their lives to the virus was overwhelming.
When the pandemic showed signs that it’d pacify toward the end of last year, Karki was hopeful. But then the second wave struck, one much deadlier than the first. Dead bodies kept coming to the crematorium in dozens.
The number of bodies that arrive at the crematorium on a daily basis have tripled since the pandemic, Karki informs. The second wave has overwhelmed the country’s hospitals. And so it has the crematoriums. “This number is double the amount of bodies our electronic crematorium can accommodate,” Karki informed. The crematorium can accommodate only 40 per day. The rest of the corpses are cremated the old fashioned way, by burning a pyre.
Of course, Karki is not alone in all this. He guides a staff of 34 on the field, helping him take care of the cremation process. But being there among all those corpses is disturbing for him, he says. It reminds him of how fragile a human life can be, evanescent like smoke.
It is even more heartbreaking for him when he has to persuade the family members of the dead that they cannot see their loved ones, not even for one last time, before they are reduced to ashes.
Karki shares one particular incident that left him “numb”; that was when he had to cremate two infants aged five and ten, an incident that affected him the most, he says.
It is even more heartbreaking for him when he has to persuade the family members of the dead that they cannot see their loved ones, not even for one last time, before they are reduced to ashes. Patients who succumb to the virus are wrapped in a plastic lest they spread the virus to others. Family members are not allowed to get near their dead to prevent any untoward incidents. “We console the family members, but the pain and desperation in their eyes does not go away,” Karki says. “It makes our job tougher than it already is.”
But then, like hundreds of other frontliners, he cannot afford to lose his balance while on the job. He has to pull himself together and continue with his work. “The job never gets easier,” he said. “I have learned how to adjust with these emotions.”
It is not that Karki has become immune to it, far from it. Seeing all these people, especially youths, lose their lives still petrifies Karki. He himself tries his best to remain safe in this pandemic. He isolates himself in his house where he lives with his son.
Like hundreds of other frontliners, he cannot afford to lose his balance while on the job. He has to pull himself together and continue with his work.
But he cannot say the same for other people in his locality. He sees people going on morning walks on his way to work. That scares him since he knows how easily this virus can take one’s life. His only request with the public is that they stay home and stay safe. “It is difficult to stay home all day, but doing so might save many lives,” he said.
Karki considers his job a responsibility amid these trying times, not just something that he does for a living. This is the only way he can do something worthwhile in this pandemic, he says. And in the process of doing so, it is very easy for him to lose track of time. His job, meanwhile, goes on. “The bodies never stop coming,” he says. “They keep on coming, from seven in the morning until midnight.”