The men who drive the dead home

UN­USUAL PRO­FES­SION Hearse driv­ers are among the first to closely in­ter­act with the fam­i­lies of the dead in their early mo­ments of grief and mourn­ing

Hindustan Times (Delhi) - - METRO - Shiv Sunny shiv.sunny@hin­dus­tan­times.com

NEW DELHI: For hearse driver Ran­veer Ku­mar, it was an un­event­ful drive from a Delhi hospi­tal to Ben­gal un­til he over­heard an un­usual con­ver­sa­tion be­tween the griev­ing par­ents of a teenager whose body lay in a freezer box next to them. They dis­cussed skip­ping the cre­ma­tion rit­ual and in­stead pre­serv­ing the body of their child.

Ran­veer brought the hearse to a halt. He had to con­vince the dis­traught par­ents that their plan could spell le­gal trou­bles for them. “It was the first time they had seen a freezer box. It gave them the idea of keeping their son’s body in a box at home for­ever,” said Ran­veer.

When they reached the fam­ily’s na­tive vil­lage, Ran­veer en­sured he saw the cre­ma­tion be­fore driv­ing back to Delhi. “Such be­hav­iour by griev­ing rel­a­tives of dead peo­ple is not un­usual,” he says.

Ran­veer would surely know. He is among scores of hearse driv­ers in Delhi who of­ten trans­port bod­ies of peo­ple to places as far as the north­east and south In­dian states. Th­ese in­clude mi­grants who die dur­ing treat­ment or are killed in tragedies or while clean­ing sew­ers.

The hearse driv­ers are among the first to closely in­ter­act with the fam­i­lies of the dead in their early mo­ments of grief and mourn­ing. From of­fer­ing com­fort to en­sur­ing the mourn­ing rel­a­tives eat on the way, the driv­ers say they do ev­ery­thing in their ca­pac­ity to lessen the grief.

On most oc­ca­sions, the rel­a­tives of the dead refuse to have any­thing on the way. The driv­ers say they make it a point to halt the van from time to time and per­suade them to have tea and snacks.

“Some­times they say their faith doesn’t al­low them to eat be­fore cre­ma­tion, but I tell them that the par­tic­u­lar death is un­usual. Not every dead per­son’s body is taken on a 24-hour drive,” says driver Manoj Ku­mar, who ends up mak­ing such out­sta­tion trips every fort­night.

Manoj, 33, drove am­bu­lances be­fore he took to driv­ing hearses. “I was hired be­cause of my abil­ity to drive for hours with­out lack of con­cen­tra­tion. This is nec­es­sary be­cause most fam­i­lies of the dead want to reach home at the ear­li­est and with­out any break, even if the jour­neys are over 24-hour long,” says Manoj.

When Manoj re­turns home, all that his el­derly mother wants is he should bathe im­me­di­ately. “Ini­tially, I would share sto­ries of my jour­neys with my fam­ily. But I re­alised we would all be gloomy for hours af­ter that. Now I keep my ex­pe­ri­ences to my­self. Th­ese deaths re­mind me that life is so un­cer­tain,” says Manoj.

Driver Chun­mun Ku­mar, who scouts for clients out­side Saf­dar­jung Hospi­tal, once drove a fam­ily that an­nounced their de­ci­sion not to mourn the death of an el­derly rel­a­tive. In­stead, they sought Chun­mum’s per­mis­sion to drink. Soon they were all hold­ing each other and weep­ing badly, re­counts Chun­mun.

While some mourn all along the jour­ney, there are a few who iso­late them­selves. Some younger peo­ple plug in ear­phones and play loud mu­sic that prob­a­bly al­lows them to “drown their sor­rows”.

“A few months ago, there was a woman who asked me to play a sad song loud. Min­utes later, she was cry­ing her heart out at her fa­ther’s death. She just wanted the mu­sic to drown out her cries. I strug­gled to con­trol my own tears,” says 61-year-old driver RK Chau­tala, who has lost count of his out­sta­tion trips.

With three decades of ex­pe­ri­ence as a hearse driver, Chau­tala knows ex­actly how to deal with dif­fer­ent peo­ple. “I travel with a corpse al­most every week. I try to strike a con­ver­sa­tion with rel­a­tives of the dead and of­fer my ad­vice. Some lis­ten at­ten­tively and feel bet­ter, oth­ers want to

Ini­tially, I would share sto­ries of my jour­neys with my fam­ily. But I re­alised we would all be gloomy for hours. Now I keep my ex­pe­ri­ences to my­self.

MANOJ KU­MAR, driver I am used to th­ese tragedies now. But every jour­ney still leaves me sad. I silently con­tem­plate on life and death while re­turn­ing.

RK CHAU­TALA , driver We have to be fam­ily to the griev­ing rel­a­tives while en­sur­ing our eyes stay on the road. We brief new­com­ers how to be sen­si­tive to the fam­i­lies.

KIS­HAN CHAND BARWA , Delhi unit chief The son of a man killed in a road ac­ci­dent asked me about the process of claim­ing ac­ci­dent ben­e­fits the mo­ment he hopped into the hearse.

BALDEV KU­MAR , driver

be left alone,” says Chau­tala.

Many of th­ese hearse driv­ers are mem­bers of the All Am­bu­lance Op­er­a­tors Wel­fare As­so­ci­a­tion. Nearly 150 hearses and am­bu­lances are avail­able out­side Delhi’s AIIMS and Saf­dar­jung Hospi­tal. Other big pub­lic hos­pi­tals such as Lok Nayak and GTB Hospi­tal too have a large fleet.

The charges range be­tween ₹12 per kilo­me­tre af­ter a fixed dis­tance for a van and up to ₹20/Km for tempo trav­ellers. The cus­tomers must pay for the re­turn jour­ney as well. While the ba­sic vans are with­out air-con­di­tion­ing and the freezer box on one side, the bet­ter ones are par­ti­tioned to pro­vide pri­vacy to mourn­ers.

The hearse own­ers usu­ally de­mand money up­front, but say they of­fer dis­counts to the poor or to those who hag­gle. “We need the money in ad­vance be­cause it is risky to ask for pay­ment upon reach- ing the des­ti­na­tion. The rel­a­tives get emo­tional af­ter meet­ing their fam­i­lies and ask­ing for money at that stage could leave peo­ple in­fu­ri­ated. There have been oc­ca­sions when peo­ple have taken ad­van­tage at the last mo­ment,” says Chau­tala.

Kis­han Chand Barwa, pres­i­dent of the as­so­ci­a­tion’s Delhi unit, says the job of hearse driv­ers is a tough one. “We have to be fam­ily to the griev­ing rel­a­tives while en­sur­ing our eyes stay on the road. While most of our driv­ers are ex­pe­ri­enced, we brief new­com­ers about how to be sen­si­tive to the griev­ing fam­i­lies,” he says.

Though most hearses – which also serve as am­bu­lances -- have a par­ti­tion, sep­a­rat­ing the rel­a­tives from the driver and con­duc­tor, their in­ter­ac­tion dur­ing the jour­neys is in­evitable. In the process, they fre­quently over­hear pri­vate con­ver­sa­tions. Of­ten they join in.

Most rel­a­tives spend their time dis­cussing mem­o­ries of the dead. Then there are those who blame doc­tors for the death through­out the jour­ney. Many oth­ers are prac­ti­cal as they spend the time dis­cussing in­sur­ance, prop­erty, sav­ings and im­me­di­ate ex­penses.

“The son of a man who was killed in a road ac­ci­dent asked me about the process of claim­ing ac­ci­dent ben­e­fits the mo­ment he hopped into the hearse. I shared the con­tacts of an advocate I knew. Be­fore the jour­ney came to an end, the man had struck a deal with the advocate,” says an­other driver, Baldev Ku­mar who has learnt from his ex­pe­ri­ences as a hearse driver and in­sured his fam­ily.

Every now and then, the hearse driv­ers come across bod­ies ac­com­pa­nied by only a sin­gle rel­a­tive. Though each hearse has two driv­ers, Barwa says they try to spare an ex­tra driver just to com­fort the lonely rel­a­tive.

“I ac­com­pa­nied a man on one such jour­ney. He had lost his young brother to ill­ness. I sat by him through the en­tire jour­ney. He fondly re­counted his mem­o­ries with his brother since their child­hood. He con­tin­ued to call me for months af­ter that,” says Barwa.

RK Chau­tala says he of­ten re­ceives phone calls on his re­turn jour­ney. They ask him about his lo­ca­tion and want to know if he is re­turn­ing safely. In those mo­ments, the rel­a­tives see even the small­est acts of th­ese driv­ers with much gratitude, says Chau­tala. He doesn’t play any mu­sic in his ve­hi­cle when he re­turns. “I am used to th­ese tragedies now. But every jour­ney still leaves me sad. I silently con­tem­plate on life and death while re­turn­ing,” says Chau­tala.

SAN­JEEV VERMA/HT PHOTO

Many of th­ese hearse driv­ers are mem­bers of the All Am­bu­lance Op­er­a­tors Wel­fare As­so­ci­a­tion. Nearly 150 hearses and am­bu­lances are avail­able out­side Delhi’s AIIMS and Saf­dar­jung Hospi­tal. Other big pub­lic hos­pi­tals such as Lok Nayak and GTB Hospi­tal too have a large fleet.

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