Looking for alternatives: Cemeteries running out of space in Guwahati

The already fast-depleting burial space at the existing Christian cemeteries in Guwahati now pose a vexing question for the leaders within the community here.

Whether the existing cemeteries, some of which are over 100 years old, in Guwahati will be able to accommodate more burials if the COVID-19 death rate increases?

The everyday spike in COVID-19 infections and deaths in the city is unsettling the 10-lakh plus people living in the city. And for the city’s almost 10,000+ Christians, the situation is no exception.

On May 23, Kamrup Metro district reported 624 COVID-19 cases and 11 deaths which were the highest in the state. Overall in Assam, 72 patients died during the past 24 hours.

Since the later part of April, Guwahati has seen an increasing trend both in terms of COVID-19 cases and deaths.

The images from severely COVID-hit cities pan India, of corpses being queued in for cremation or burial has led some of the Christian leaders here to ponder about what actions to resort to if Guwahati finds itself in the same dire situation as those cities.

On May 5 over 24 COVID-19 ridden corpses were cremated at two cremation grounds in the city alone, and another five were put to burial at an Islamic graveyard.

At the Ulubari cremation ground where 17 corpses were cremated, Himanta Biswa Sarma, who was the state’s health and education minister back then, was present and he expressed serious concerns over the mass cremation of those who succumbed to COVID-19.

This led the local Kamrup Metro district administration to designate seven new cremation grounds and Islamic burial grounds.

The new designated cremation and burial grounds will complement the existing cremation and Islamic burial grounds at Ulubari, Bashista Bhootnath, Bothaguli, Jalukbari and at Garigaon, Jalukbari and Katabari Kabarstan.

But the administration’s press release does not mention anything related to Christian cemeteries.

The News Mill reached out to some of the Christian community leaders in Guwahati.

Allen Brooks, the spokesperson of the Assam Christian Forum, an umbrella body of the state’s Christian community from all denominations said that if Guwahati finds itself in a catastrophic situation and if the cemeteries run out of space, the community will have to look out for other alternatives for burial.

Brooks, an influential Christian community leader, and a former member of the Assam State Commission for the Minorities, said that the last option that the community may resort to if COVID-19 death rates in the city skyrocket, could be electric cremation or cremation.

He added that such options will be difficult for the community members to fathom owing to religious sentiments.

“What if we begin to witness deaths in large numbers within our community? Death knows no religion, caste or creed and nor does the virus. The city’s cemeteries are already running short of space. Our community has grown and so has the number of people who have been buried. So, what if we witness deaths in larger numbers due to COVID-19? Cremation or electrical cremation may be the last resort,” he said.

Brooks also said he would approach Himanta Biswa Sarma with a proposal addressing the limited burial spaces in the existing cemeteries.

“The limited burial space in the cemeteries is a persisting issue that we have been facing for quite a while. Now, the COVID-19 has taken precedence and given the present grim situation we have to look at what can be done. Our community requires a plot of land here and that would be possible if only the state government helps us,” he said.

He further continues: “Since, we as a community here have not adapted to cremation, the onus should be on educating our own people about it if the severity of COVID-19 situation compels us. This is a tough stand but at the same, we are in the grasp of a pandemic.”

The city has five cemeteries catering to the needs of close to the eight thousand plus Christians.

According to the last census (2011), the city’s Christian population was 8913. Christians comprise 0.93 per cent of the total 962,334 population of Guwahati.

Another cemetery at Pani Kheti in the far outskirts of the city also caters to the burial needs for all Christian denomination in the city. But due to its location access to it at times become difficult.

Pastor Aziz ul Haque of the 176-year-old Guwahati Baptist Church also said if the situation in Guwahati becomes more severe the community has to look out for alternatives.

“Cremation or electrical cremation will be the only option left to us if all the cemeteries here run out of space, provided if Guwahati’s COVID-19 situation spirals out of control. But to resort to such options will require acceptance from the overall community. But till then we have to observe to what happens next,” said he.

Pastor Vikas Singh of Welcome Worship Fellowship, an open fellowship for all Christian denominations in the city said: “If the COVID-19 situation hits the severity level then we have to look out for alternate options. Cremation whether electrical or the usual would require approval from the people. If other options do not work out, if land for burial is not found, and the crisis reaches the highest crescendo, then cremation only would remain the viable option. The community is already facing limited burial space in some of the existing cemeteries.”

About Gaurav Das

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Gaurav Das is a Guwahati-based journalist and blogger.

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