For the past month, a public cremation site has come to symbolize the terror of India’s COVID-19 crisis. Images of bodies engulfed by flames in rows of bright red funeral pyres that span open city blocks are now commonplace, appearing on Instagram stories, short reels in the evening news, and the front page of the New York Times. Sometimes they come with a “disturbing imagery” warning, but usually, the viewer is assumed to expect this death.
In this spectacle of suffering in South Asia, families grieve their dead on the sides of a road, and more wait in a cue for the final rituals of religious traditions practiced by Hindus, Sikhs, Jains, and other faiths. The mourning practices of Muslims, who bury their dead, are noticeably absent.
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Despite the visceral darkness of these photographs, they serve a purpose in a world that values journalistic evidence, testifying to the true scale of mortality in India. In several cities, crematorium deaths pictured vastly outnumber state reports of COVID-19 deaths. And even these sites quickly run out of space: in New Delhi, parking lots turned into makeshift crematoriums, and officials cleared city parks so more bodies could be accommodated. Bodies are packed so closely together that dozens must be lit at once, unleashing an unprecedented visual.
On closer inspection, however, the funeral pyre embodies more than just the sheer magnitude of the deaths. It also reveals the vastly unequal social landscape of living, dying, and grieving amidst an unruly strain of the virus, an absent national government, and a recovering Western public ready to leave the pandemic in the past.
Like all forms of documentation, an image of the cremation site carries political baggage. The majority of these photographs picture the nation’s capital of New Delhi, though rural areas face even more severe undercounting of coronavirus infection. Drones captured many widely-circulated images reproduced in Western media, meaning that an obtrusive technology that carries significant surveillance and consent concerns buzzed over victims’ last rites.
But given that the right-wing Bharatiya Janata (BJP) government, under the leadership of Prime Minister Narendra Modi, is desperate to play down its role in the crisis, the reality is more complex. Two weeks ago, one of Modi’s key allies in the state of Uttar Pradesh made photography at crematoriums a punishable offense. As US-based Indian journalist Tanvi Misra tweeted, “The Indian government is trying to hide the scope and scale of a disaster that they have, in many ways, been instrumental in creating. They are weaponizing cultural sensitivity to silence journalists.” Reflecting on privacy concerns and a commitment to portray the truth, Ishan Tankha, whose photographs appeared in the Times, commented to me, “It is difficult to dignify a moment that is in itself undignified.”
Suddenly, cremation sites have transformed into contested spaces, where families are robbed of communal religious practices but encounter a terrifyingly familiar loss. In April, a widely-shared Caravan video of the Old Seemapuri cremation ground in New Delhi displayed the politics of grief amid unprecedented state failure. A BJP leader on the grounds blames the municipal Delhi government, governed by the opposition Aam Aadmi Party. A grieving woman cries, “This Modi, for what does he take our votes? Is he taking votes to kill people?”
Yet the media gaze has largely overlooked the lived experiences of those working these sites — piling the wood, carrying the bodies, loading the furnaces. Caste-oppressed Dalit workers are vastly overrepresented in funeral labor due to centuries of caste-based discrimination. A recent report revealed horrific working conditions: little access to drinking water, 16-hour days at $5 per day, no health benefits, unusable PPE in burning conditions, and constant exposure to the virus. “Who will do all the dirty and dangerous work? It’s the Dalits,” commented Dipanshu Rathore, an activist at Asia Dalit Rights Forum, in an interview with Vice.
Like crematoriums, Muslim cemeteries are also overflowing with the dead. But images of these sites, devoid of the dramatic, blazing flames, have not made the front pages. Whether an accidental slight or a deliberate move, the fixation on the funeral pyre as the symbol of death renders invisible the mourning practices of many of India’s religious minorities, who have already confronted daunting levels of criminalization from the Modi regime.
As flawed and flattening as they might be, these burning images of India stand in stark contrast to what has been labeled an imageless COVID-19 crisis in the United States. Photographs of testing lines, exhausted healthcare workers, and lockdown protests that filled American newsstands in spring 2020 all related to the crisis, but they were visually removed from death itself. At the time, historian Sarah Elizabeth Lewis commented in a Times essay, “Images that emerge as an emblem of sacrifice or consequence have often moved masses to act. Yet without these pictures, the virus is harder to combat.” Last month, writer Zoé Samudzi added to this provocation with a reflection in SSENSE, asking: “Are we able to communicate the scale of trauma without being forced to use the dehumanization of enumeration?”
India brings us closer to facing these deeply disturbing questions, but the answers are not uplifting. In India, where 92% of the population does not have access to a computer and 33% does not have a phone, is it the publicly circulated image that must communicate the severity of crisis? The emergency is already lived: constant SOS calls for oxygen, medicine, hospital beds, and pages and pages of obituaries in local papers. My family members explain that every day is a new nightmare, searching for depleted and life-saving resources. Most in India do not require a photograph to remind them of the unfolding and unending tragedy.
Perhaps these images were never meant forthem. In the US, South Asian diaspora groups have organized fundraisers to send resources, while Western confrontations with grueling, tragic images of an exoticized funeral practice could have inspired donations. But we still await significant international action — equitable vaccine access, efficient delivery of oxygen, and a condemnation of the Modi administration’s abdication of governance. The thesis that the spectacle of death can shepherd us towards change wavers again.
It’s telling that arguably the most gruesome images of COVID-19’s wrath in the Western press have originated from a place 6,000 miles away in a formerly colonized nation with a per-capita income 31 times smaller than that of the United States. As Samudzi concludes, images of suffering produce “an affective distance between the self and the witnessed.”
Even these images of funeral pyres, literal embodiments of death, barely render as human. Rather, they convey countless, nameless Indian bodies masked under fire and wood, blurring our lens of another, faraway reality.