Thirty-year-old Bellal Hossain could not dig any grave in the last three months as he has been indisposed with lower back pain -- due to digging work for the last 10 years at Jurain graveyard.
Bellal, who started working at the graveyard with help of his father, is now involved in lighter work like cleaning as doctor advised him not to do any digging work.
“I have been out of work for the last three months. I reckon I have to resume digging graves soon despite the back pain as otherwise I won’t be able to support my family,” a tensed Bellal said.
Many in the grave digging profession develop health issues like lower back pain and weakened bones over the years. Some continue the laborious work, though they know there is a chance of becoming paralysed.
There are 19 grave diggers working at Jurain graveyard. A chart put up in front of a shed for diggers -- located near the second gate of the graveyard -- mention their names.
“I’m going to doctors and taking physiotherapy as well,” said Bellal, who was feeling a tad better after therapy.
He said they are not considered Dhaka South City Corporation (DSCC) workers and hence, are not entitled to medical benefits. They supposedly do not receive any help from the contractors who get the charge from DSCC through bids either.
“Relatives of the dead give us money willingly after burial, and we share that amongst ourselves,” he said.
“We get Tk 10,000-12,000 per month on an average,” Bellal said.
An old digger of the graveyard, Mohammad Hajrat Ali, endured lower back pain and eventually became paralysed. He passed away around one month back after suffering for a year, said Bellal.
“He couldn’t afford to buy medicine, and some of his coworkers gave him money for treatment,” he said.
Abdul Quddus Patowari, 48, who has been working at Jurain graveyard for the last 30 years, said during dry season before digging a grave they soften the soil with water, otherwise it is very difficult for them to dig.
“Sometimes one person alone can dig a grave and at others, it requires a few diggers. It takes two to two and a half hours to complete the work,” said Quddus, who has also developed lower back pain but continues to work using waist support belt.
Initially, most diggers have to work through their fears. “I used to be quite terrified initially; I did not want to touch corpses brought to the graveyard by Anjuman Mufidul Islam, as most of them would be decomposed,” said Bellal.
Anjuman Mufidul Islam is a major welfare organisation and one of its important works is arranging burial of unclaimed Muslim dead bodies.
“You tell yourself that you’ll die one day too, and our work requires us to be brave,” Bellal quoted his seniors who gave him courage during his early days.
Janaza of the unclaimed bodies would be conducted by the imams at the graveyard and then they would be buried, Bellal said.
Two-three days a week, Anjuman Mufidul Islam brings unclaimed bodies to the graveyard and they always bring seven-eight bodies together, he said. Burials are done from 6am to 11pm every day.
“I used to be scared initially at night and it took me two years to overcome that fear,” said Quddus. He said he could not even go out alone for toilet at night while staying at the graveyard.
Mohammad Shahadat Hossian, the contractor who has taken charge of all burials in the graveyard from DSCC, said they have a one-year contract.
Denying the allegation that he does not give any money to the diggers, Shahadat said a grave digger gets around Tk 100 for each work -- a paltry amount.
Afzalul Azam Reza, social welfare officer of zone-5 of DSCC, said a grave digger is supposed to get Tk 198 for a big grave, Tk 179 for a middle-sized one, and Tk 148 for a small one.
Total area of the graveyard is 18 acres -- with 4,500 reserved graves and 10,000-11,000 for general burial.
Every day on an average six to seven bodies are buried at the graveyard, he said.