Helping the poor on their onward journey

Helping the poor on their onward journey

Helping the poor on their onward journey

Amarjit Kaur with her van

Bonding with the unknown deceased spurs her to life. In the aftermath of an anonymous death, the souls of the unfortunate get the balm of compassion from 53-year old Amarjit Kaur Dhillon. Scouting for unclaimed bodies and arranging for their last rites has become her life's sole mission after quitting a cushy bank officer's job.

 She ensures that the poor or the orphan whom life may have treated badly at least get a dignified send-off on their last journey on earth. Her work is akin to that of Mahadeva of Bangalore, who has been burying the unclaimed bodies in the city from 1971. But the comparisons stop at that!

"Every human being is a God's creation. Death can stalk anybody, anywhere, anytime. The deceased can be poor, away from kin or marooned by disaster or accident. I help in arranging a decent cremation for them," says Dhillon, a spinster, who has cremated over 200 bodies in the past ten years. She has been staying with her brother.

Her life's mission revealed to her when she witnessed the death of a 26-year old patient from Bihar at the Post Graduate Institute of Medical Education and Research (PGIMER) at Chandigarh way back in1998.

"I saw an inconsolable widow of 21 with three young children who were also crying bitterly in the hospital ward. She was all alone and fell unconscious with grief. I got all formalities completed to get the body to the mortuary and then arranged for the cremation next day. The incident moved me and I decided to devote myself fully to the mission of helping people in distress. I realised there is no bigger distress than death," she says.

Her adopted mission prompted her to take voluntary retirement from her 20-year service as a bank officer in a nationalised bank in 2000 to plunge full-time into social service. She developed an instant rapport with patients, doctors and nurses at the government hospitals in Chandigarh that she visited every day. Even police officials connected with completing post-mortem formalities of accidental or unknown victims became familiar with her presence and her role.

"Now, I get a call from the police every time there is an unclaimed body in a hospital to be cremated. Many times, I get to know in advance about the number of unclaimed bodies in a hospital mortuary and to which police station area they belong to. I often coax the police to expedite post-mortem formalities for release of bodies for cremation," she says.

Grief is an emotion that has become natural to her. She cries as sister for the elderly and as mother for the deceased kids. "Death of any human being is an overwhelming emotion. No witness can remain untouched by its sweeping sadness," Dhillon says philosophically.

About the resources, she says many philanthropists have come to her aid in her noble mission. On other occasions, NGOs and social organisations like Rotary and Red Cross helped her in providing vehicle for ferrying a body from hospital to cremation and for bearing the cost of cremation.

In 2008, the Punjab government donated a van and an immigration consultancy firm provided her with a driver and agreed to foot the fuel bill. On occasions and in emergencies during odd-hours she drives the funeral van herself to ferry the bodies. The van is always equipped with a stretcher and white pieces of clothes for shrouding the bodies.

The unknown victims she has helped cremate have hailed from Uttar Pradesh, Bihar, J and K, West Bengal and Punjab and Haryana and one from Pakistan.

After witnessing so many dead bodies and attending to their cremation, Dhillon says it has been a learning experience in human emotions. She still regrets an incident when a young lover from Kanpur died after jumping from train at Sirhind in Punjab and the body was cremated before his kin reached Chandigarh. 

"I pleaded with the police to trace the family of the boy for performing his last rites. The family was traced after we had cremated the boy. Fortunately, I had taken care of preserving the ashes of the deceased which I handed over to his father when he came to Chandigarh," she said.

 In another incident of death, she still feels angry about a father of the deceased married girl from UP for refusing to perform her last rites saying only her husband could do it. "He refused to even take away her ashes", she fumes adding it reflects the narrow attitude of male-dominated society.

 Dhillon has a vision for beautifying all cremation grounds in all the districts of Punjab. She regrets that most cremation grounds lacked facilities like drinking water and sun or rain shelters. She is also getting refrigerated boxes made for preserving and ferrying bodies. "It will save people from hassles of arranging ice for preserving bodies from decomposing,"she says.

 Winner of several awards including the state award for social work, Dhillon has eight documentaries made on her work. However, the humble lady says, "I feel what I do is ordained by God. It is his work and it gives me supreme satisfaction."