The three have been authorised to act as caretakers of unclaimed bodies and give them a dignified cremation or burial.
They are posted at three hearse vans in the city, which are used to transport bodies from hospital to
Ware looks after the south and central region of
While Ware has been doing this work for the past 20 years now, Khan and Pandyere have been handling unclaimed bodies for the past 3 and 4 years, respectively.
Ware, a 1995 batch police constable, was first assigned this duty in 2001 on his request, and has stayed put ever since. During this period, Ware got opportunities for transfer to police stations, but he chose to stay back.
“I had gone on sick leave in 2000, and when I resumed work, I was given the hearse van duty. Our work was to pick up bodies from hospital mortuary and take them for their last rites. Initially, it was not easy for me to do this job. For a month, I couldn’t eat or sleep properly. I would often get fever as I had to handle bodies in different conditions. Some bodies were completely decomposed, some were mutilated and some cut into pieces. I was scared and would get nightmares. After a month, I got used to it and decided to continue doing the job thinking it was a noble deed. I took it as my contribution to help the soul rest in peace,” said Ware.
Ware said he has performed last rites of about one lakh bodies, which either could not be identified or remained unclaimed. He was fully active even when the Covid pandemic was at its height.
Ware is assisted by two people – Manoj Valmiki, a government employee and Arjun Valmiki, a private person, who gets Rs 100 for handling a body.
“We work as a team and try to make sure that the bodies that come to us get a decent funeral. Our aim is to ensure dignity at every step, irrespective of the religion of the deceased. We cremate Hindus at the crematorium and bury Muslims in Bada Kabrastan. The job is not easy. In most of the cases, we have to touch the bodies with bare hands. The two helpers are the ones who face maximum risks as they are seated with the body behind while I drive the vehicle. They come in contact with the decomposed or mutilated bodies and are exposed to blood or other fluids,” Ware said.
“We get the bodies after post-mortem examination. At least four helpers, who worked with me in the past, have died either because of infection or following the consequences of addiction to alcohol just because of the nature of the job,” Ware said.
“We buy new clothes and other things required as per the religious rituals before conducting the funeral,” he said.
Ware said that his team has to handle 4-5 bodies in the area assigned to them every day.
There are 12 police zones in Mumbai and earlier every zone had one hearse van whose job was to pick up unidentified bodies. However, now only three vans have remained, which are not enough for a city like Mumbai where, as per the police statistics, thousands of bodies are found every month.
“For us, giving someone a dignified funeral is not only a job, it’s a personal duty too. It is a responsibility of every human being to ensure that the deceased are not denied dignified last rites.”
Their efforts don’t go unrewarded, as they earn goodwill and blessings of people whose relatives or friends they serve.
“There have been instance wherein after months or sometimes years, relatives of the people cremated or buried by us come asking for us.
They thank and bless us. These visitors are usually from out of Mumbai or the state. At times, they become emotional. This recognition motivates me to continue doing my work. I feel blessed that I have the entrusted with this task,” he said, adding that he doesn’t expect anything from anyone, and believes that whatever good has happened to him is because of people’s blessings.
The bodies are brought to hospitals from all over the city. The deceased include people who live on footpaths or under flyovers as well as orphans who succumb to some kind of diseases. Some bodies are found on the railway tracks.
According to the police, whenever a body is found, an accidental death report is registered with the local police station and an inquiry is conducted. The police initially try to identify the person after rushing him to the hospital and when the body is not identified, it is kept at the mortuary. The necessary legal procedures laid down for cases of unclaimed and unidentified bodies are completed and after that the body is sent for last rites on the orders of senior police officers.
The officer from the police station under whose jurisdiction the body was found does the necessary paper work and contacts the hearse van of their respective area wherein these three policemen come into action.
Constable Baaz Khan has been on hearse van duty for the past three years. He is deployed in western Mumbai.
“I had joined the force in the year 2000 and was posted at different police stations before being given the hearse van duty for western part of the city. We have a standard operating procedure for handling the bodies. We conduct last rites as per the deceased’s religion. Keeping up the dignity in death is the foremost duty, and we always keep this in mind,” said the 46-yearold.
Khan said that the job gives him immense satisfaction as he considers it a virtuous deed.
For Constable Vijay Pandyere, 52, being the caretaker of an unclaimed body is an opportunity to serve the humanity, and not just a routine job.
“It’s a virtuous deed to conduct the last rites. I have been doing this for the past four years now, and have handled thousands of bodies. In many cases, we don’t even know their names or religion,” said Pandyere who looks after the cases in eastern parts of the city.
“There are instances when the relatives or acquaintances of the deceased somehow appear on the scene. They make it a point to meet us to express their gratitude for conducting the last rites of their loved ones. They bless us and that’s enough for me to continue doing what I have been doing,” he said.