[COVID Warriors] Meet the Here I Am volunteers who are performing final rites of COVID-19 victims

More than 70 volunteers are part of the Here I Am squad, a Bengaluru-based initiative whose mission is to perform the final rites of COVID-19 victims.
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The time we are living in can make anyone break down in hopelessness, grief - or simply helplessness.

But these volunteers soldier on, with empathy, dedication, and courage, visiting cemeteries and cremation grounds to perform the last rites of people who have died from COVID-19.

“I was witness to a newly married woman, who had come for the last rites of her husband. They had been in a relationship for seven years. In another incident, parents buried both their son and daughter and were crying, asking who they should live for now,” says Esther, a volunteer who frequents cemeteries to help families of those who have succumbed to COVID-19 in Bengaluru.

Esther is a volunteer with the Here I Am Last Rites and Funeral Squad team in Bengaluru, whose mission is help with the final rites of those who have died of COVID-19, irrespective of religion.

“To have a dignified life is a basic human right, and so is having a dignified death,” says Akshaya, another volunteer-coordinator and a final year student of law in a city college.

Esther and Akshaya are joined by over 70 other volunteers, young and old, men, women, boys and girls - many of them students who are committed to the cause.

Akshaya says the initiative was named ‘Here I Am’ after a lot of deliberation. “We believe a call for help is God’s call, and we all should be able to answer, “Here I Am.”

The Here I Am Squad is an initiative of the Archdiocese of Bengaluru, led by Fr Santhosh Royan and Fr Rajesh with a team of dedicated volunteers from all parts of Bengaluru.

How it started

The initiative began last year when the number of cases reached a peak.

“We had a meeting at church and a decision was made to form a committee. I was asked to help out. I was very happy as I was just sitting at home, attending online classes and confused about the way forward,” Akshaya says.

A Google form was circulated, which volunteers could use to sign up. Depending on different age groups, volunteers were segregated for different tasks. There are four helpline numbers for Bengaluru East, West, North, and South to take calls for help.

After the documentation is done (Aadhaar card details, death certificate, COVID-positive certificate), as a coordinator, Akshaya calls the family member to ask what they require. Those who cannot afford a coffin are sent one.

Initially, free transportation of the bodies to the burial/cremation sites was done in association with the Mercy Angels, but now the group uses ambulances donated by VTT, a local enterprise.

Volunteers are also present from morning to night at the funeral sites to help family members of the deceased.

Once the number of cases reduced, the Here I Am initiative decided to halt its activities in January 2021. But as soon as the second wave hit India, the volunteers were back on the field, without even being asked, Akshaya says.

The circle of giving and receiving

The volunteers come from different backgrounds – students, IT employees, lecturers – and from all religions. They follow the requisite COVID protocols and are equipped with masks, gloves, sanitisers, and PPE kits. They do all this, without any hesitation, though there was some fear initially.

“We step in – right from keeping the body in the ambulance, and then in the coffin, take it to the pit, lower the coffin, and sometimes even fill the pit with mud. As we started attended more cases, we lost our fear,” Esther says.

So far, the Here I’m Squad has helped with 617 burials between April 1 and May 15.

Akshaya believes it’s a circle of giving and receiving. “When you help a stranger, they thank us and pray that we help more people," she says.

In one instance, a girl who had lost her mother was inconsolable and the volunteers rallied around to comfort and console, offering their support. The girl, in turn, promised to pray for them and support them in their initiative.

Carrying out such tasks everyday can be overwhelming, and volunteers can consult a counselling team specially formed for this purpose. So far, none of their volunteers have been affected by the disease.

Edited by Teja Lele Desai