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Dignity to the dead: This Tamil Nadu man performs funerals for unclaimed bodies

Two years ago, Khaalid Ahamed was walking on a busy street in Chennai with his friends when he heard an older man begging and pleading for something. It was a hot summer afternoon, and the man pleaded for some water to drink. A few minutes after gulping the water that Khalid’s friends had arranged, the man breathed his last.

“He didn’t say anything. There was no one around who knew him or his name. He died just like that,” this incident changed his life.

For the next few hours, the youngsters, including Khaalid, ran around making calls, visiting the police station and hospital. The older man had no family or friends who cared to claim his body or bury him. Khaalid was shaken and shocked that he saw someone die in front of him.

When he came home, he became restless.

“How would it feel if you died and no one came to your funeral? No matter how good or bad you’ve lived your life, no one deserves a death like the old man,” he thought.

After talking to a few people, he realised that everyone had a ‘final wish’ — how/where they want to be buried or who they wish to be around during their final moments. He spoke to police personnel, hospital staff, and people on the burial site. He realised that everyone doesn’t necessarily get a proper burial since there is a lack of staff, time, and funds.

On July 27, 2017, Khaalid and six of his friends registered the Uravugal Trust in Chennai. Uravugal in Tamil means relationships.

“Our only objective was to provide a dignified burial to unclaimed bodies in Chennai. We become their family and be there for them in their last journey even if it is for a few minutes,” Khaalid, who is originally from Thanjavur, a district in Tamil Nadu.

The youngster distinctly remembers the first time they buried a body.

“It was of a very old man who died outside the Egmore railway station. His autopsy report said he had died of hunger. The man hadn’t eaten anything for 10 days and had belted his stomach with an old cloth to avoid the pain,” he recalls.

Since then, the trust, which now has 400 plus volunteers across Chennai, has buried over 150 bodies, including just born children, outstation travellers, and the needy.

“We never promoted our NGO, and we have a social media page. That’s all. Most of our volunteers are women, college students, or freshers aged between 18 and 28,” says Khaalid.

We work with police officers and hospitals across Chennai. They have our visiting cards with numbers. So whenever there is an unclaimed body, they inform us. We have two WhatsApp groups. One is a core group, and one is for volunteers. We have a format, and accordingly, we assign 5 to 6 people who are nearby and available to take it up.” When they started, Khaalid, who runs Colour Drops, a small paint business in Chennai, decided to donate Rs 200 for every funeral. The approximate cost to bury a body is between Rs 200 to Rs 500, depending on the place of burial and transportation involved.

“When we visit a restaurant or watch a movie, we easily spend a few thousand rupees. If I could spend a little less and save some money, I could donate it for someone else who cannot manage one meal a day or doesn’t have a family to take care of,” he says.

The simple idea germinated into making Uravugal self-sustaining, if not profitable.The trust has also tied up with multiple NGOs, schools, and colleges across Chennai, where the youngsters appeal to students to value relationships, respect the old and take care of them when they become dependents.

“There are so many NGOs that do tree plantation, blood donation, and provide food and scholarships to the needy. I am also part of many such NGOs. Now, we are all working together to find solutions to end poverty and provide homes to the needy and less privileged. We aim to make Chennai hunger-free in the next five years,” he says ambitiously.

With the funds gathered, they have arranged a 24×7 ambulance which he says will help outstation travellers.

“Sometimes people travel from new cities and find themselves in a medical emergency. They can call the ambulance to take them to a nearby hospital by just paying for the diesel. If they are poor and don’t have money, we are providing this service free of charge,” he says.

What Khaalid and Uravugal are doing may seem a humanitarian cause, but it comes with its fair set of challenges. There is always the risk of catching an infection or contracting a life-threatening disease while transporting a body. But these selfless warriors are looking at the bigger picture.

“If you are doing a job with all your heart, these things (the risks) don’t come to your mind.”

Although Uravugal is only a twp old, Khaalid was nominated for The Hero of Chennai 2018 award.

According to StepsStones, a Chennai-based real estate investment firm, Khaalid and Uravugal deserved the award for two reasons — ‘for solving an economic problem and enabling safe burial of the less privileged and also for incorporating women and enabling their entry at the burial site.’

Khaalid calls it a team effort and mainly thanks to the police and good-hearted people who have supported him in the journey.

“Every day, countless people die in the city due to hunger, some disease, or accidents. The police usually send photographs of the dead to all police stations for inquiries. If no one claims the body for 15 or 24 days, they are sent to the morgue. Sometimes, they lie there and are taken to medical colleges for study. The concerned police constables or officers mostly buy flowers and new clothes and bury these bodies with their own money. It may be part of their job, but to pay from your pocket or arrange for a funeral of someone you don’t know, I feel, is a sign of humanity and selfless service.”

Khaalid doesn’t have specific statistics, but he says most people die of hunger, and the elderly die due to shock of abandonment and loneliness.

His appeal to readers is: “No matter what differences you have with your parents, never abandon them or drive them to a situation where they have nowhere to go or ask for help. Maybe they never told you, but your parents have sacrificed a lot so that you can enjoy what you have. Before you abuse or mistreat your mother, think about the pain she must have endured while giving you a life.”

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