Chennai doctor who died of Covid-19 denied proper burial in Church cemetery

As the medical community is shocked at the apathy shown by some insensitive people towards the death and funeral of COVID-19 affected doctors, the media fraternity as usual obscures specific details when it comes to the minority communities’ behaviour.

Chennai based neurosurgeon and the Managing Director of New Hope Hospital, Dr. Simon Hercules, who underwent treatment for Covid-19 in the Apollo Hospital, Vanagaram passed away on 19th of April. His mortal remains were taken for burial at night in the Kilpauk cemetery as per the social media posts of his friends and colleagues.

His wife and son along with his friends cum colleagues at New Hope Hospital and the corporation officials were the ones accompanying the coffin. Before they could reach the cemetery they got information that there was a mob protesting the burial at Kilpauk cemetery, which made them divert the ambulance to the corporation crematorium cum burial ground in Velangadu.

The News Minute reported that “local civic workers had informed the residents about the burial that was planned. And frightened by rumours that this could lead to the spread of the virus, people in the neighbourhood had gathered to protest”.

But at Velangadu too a mob had assembled with stones, bottles and logs objecting the burial as the grave was being dug. The funeral party was attacked and had to flee for safety leaving the body on the ground. One of them, a doctor, managed to take the body inside the ambulance with the help of the drivers. They drove away with the body but ambulance drivers were attacked so badly that they bled profusely and couldn’t be of help any longer.

So the doctor took two of the hospital staff with Personal Protective Equipment (PPE), sought the help of officials in the health department to get police protection and drove back to the graveyard. Police were already there when they went back but some of the protesters were still present at a distance. They had to dig a little more and bury the body in a hurry and shove the sand by hand as only one shovel was available.

Friends of the doctor have expressed anguish about the absence of empathy shown towards a fellow doctor who was denied dignity by the same people he treated, not caring about getting infected by the novel coronavirus.

However, the doctor who buried Dr. Simon, instead of taking to task those who violently denied a proper burial to his deceased friend, decided to focus his angst on those who supported PM Modi’s call to support health workers instead. Speaking to India Today, he said, “People don’t even know why they are banging plates and clapping hands. My own mother thought lighting nine candles at 9 pm will kill coronavirus. How can you expect the situation to come under control if people are not made more aware?”

Similar cases

However this was not the first time an incident like this happened in Chennai. Eleven COVID-19 affected deaths had already occurred and their final rites done without any issues till a surgeon, Dr. Lakshminarayana Reddy from Nellore, Andhra Pradesh died at the same Apollo hospital where Dr. Simon was admitted. The Andhra doctor’s body was dumped at the crematorium in Ambattur as per locals.

However, the hospital alleged that workers at the crematorium were afraid as they had no PPE. Locals informed the police and protested, fearing the spread of the virus in the locality. Later the police and other officials took the body and cremated it elsewhere. Dr. Reddy’s wife and children could not attend his cremation as they were also tested positive and being treated at Nellore. This news did not get the amount of attention and outrage as Dr. Simon’s incident which made national headlines and led to the IMA (Indian Medical Association) issuing a condemnation.

Similarly, the first COVID-19 positive case of Christian-majority Meghalaya was also a famous doctor who established the first big private hospital, Bethany Hospitals, in the state. Dr. John L Sailo succumbed to the disease and was denied burial space for 36 hours. His family was quarantined as they were tested positive and couldn’t do the final rites.

Vicious social media campaigns were launched against them. Initially, it was suspected that the doctor caught the infection from his pilot son-in-law who had traveled to COVID-19 affected countries. But the son-in-law wrote a WhatsApp message saying the doctor could’ve contracted it from a patient as he (son-in-law) has tested negative twice.

Indian Express quoted the following extract from his WhatsApp message –

It has been 12 hours since my father-in-law passed away, silently. My wife just lost her father. We do not know whether his cremation is over. We were not there to weep beside his body. It has also been almost 48 hours since the news was made public and the media and social media jumped in to vilify us. The ripples have reached my family in Manipur and Nagaland. Nobody has been spared“.

When the doctor passed away, the family wanted to bury him in their farm house in Nongpoh. But the local community refused to allow the same. EastMojo, a North East digital media outlet reported-

‘In a letter, the executive committee of Nongpoh Dorbar Shnong (Village Councils) said that a meeting was held after the son of late Dr Sailo sought permission to bury the body in the farmhouse of the doctor, which is in Nongpoh.

“After a meeting was held with the youths and the senior members, we have unanimously decided not to allow the burial of the body of Dr Sailo in Nongpoh, based on the following reasons: That the residents have panicked hearing the news, because the farmhouse is in between the village, that the doctor is not a permanent resident of Nongpoh and there has been no safety concerning such cases,” mentioned the letter. 

Then they planned to cremate the body but the neighbours of the crematorium in Jhalupara, Shillong protested against it. So the doctor’s body had to lie at the same hospital he built two decades back. ‘Finally, on Wednesday night, the government reached out to churches’ the Indian Express reported. He was laid to rest in peace in Riatsamthiah Presbyterian Church. Meghalaya CM Conrad Sangma tweeted thanking the church for their gesture.

Shillong Mail wrote thus about Dr. Sailo

‘He was a man who had a special blessing to serve the people not only by his medical service but also by serving the people through the word of God. He was a man who has always put God before anything, and God had also showered him with all the blessings, teaching and inspiring people to follow the word of God and to be God fearing’.

Despite being a good Samaritan and a faithful Christian, his societal or religious standing didn’t help Dr. Sailo in his final moments. In the past, some members of the Christian community, which is in majority (75%) in Meghalaya, didn’t allow cremation of the unconverted indigenous tribal people. Now some narrow-minded people have denied dignity to a fellow Christian as well.

Was Dr. Simon denied burial at Kilpauk cemetery due to sectarian differences?

It was initially alleged that the Kilpauk cemetery belongs to the Church of South India (CSI), a Protestant organisation, and that Dr. Simon is a Catholic which is why CSI instigated people against his burial there. Mrs. Simon has tearfully requested the TN CM to arrange for his body to be exhumed and reburied in Kilpauk cemetery, while the Archbishop of Chennai-Mylapore Catholic diocese, George Antonysamy,  has denied the allegations. 

As reported by The News Minute, Antonysamy stated –

“On April 19, at close to 8.30 pm, a relative of Dr Simon Hercules received a permission letter from the Church to bury the body at the Kilpauk Church. However, as soon as he died, the body was handed over to his family and it came under the control of the Chennai Corporation because he died of an infectious disease. They decided to not wait till the next day and bury the body the same night. So instead of the church cemetery, it was decided that they will bury the body in a cemetery belonging to the corporation. So, no relative approached the church for the burial on Sunday. By then people around the corporation cemetery came to know that a person who died of coronavirus was being buried there and they held demonstrations. Efforts by the police to placate them, ended in failure”.

However, the above statement is somewhat contradicted by a statement from the Madras Cemeteries Board Trust (MCBT), which manages the Kilpauk cemetery. As reported by Frontline magazine, MCBT claimed no one from the doctor’s family approached it for burial and that the cemetery had been closed for burials since it was full. Moreover, it added that site was used for the burials of both Catholics and Protestants since the British period.

So if the cemetery was closed as it was full, how did the Church give a permission letter on 19 April to Dr. Simon’s family to bury his body? Who informed the funeral party that a mob is gathered at Kilpauk and why? Other than family and friends, only the staff of Apollo hospital, Corporation officials and the church would have been privy to these details. Why didn’t the Church officials visit the cemetery to assuage the unfounded apprehensions of the laity? After all, the strict control exercised by both Catholic and Protestant Churches over their faithful is well known. 

In the case of Dr. John L Sailo too, the government had to hold talks with different churches and their leaders to find a final resting place for the doctor.

And while a Christian doctor’s final rites were disturbed possibly by fellow Christians – as they would be the first to know about a new burial in their local graveyards – some in Dr. Simon’s funeral party decided to blame the ‘ignorance’ of the common man, majority of whom are Hindus, for following the PM’s request to clap hands to appreciate our first responders and light diyas to express solidarity. Media is also is happy to peddle the same narrative, instead of asking some hard questions of the Church.


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