A life spent caring for others, even the dead

Meet the phenomenal Roja Sri, a lone woman, who apart from caring for the needy and poor, takes full responsibility for unclaimed dead bodies in the city and performs their last rites.

It is said that circumstances define the course of one’s life. 15 years back Roja Sri, a young girl then, left Chidambaram for Chennai to get away from her father and step-mother who deprived her not only of her mother’s wealth, but also basic necessities such as food, shelter and clothing. But far from making her resentful and bitter, this made Roja Sri determined to dedicate her life to serving people, especially those who have no one to care for them.

Today, the 34-year-old woman, popularly known as ‘Roja Amma’ is an example and inspiration as she has broken many stereotypes and made her place in a domain that has traditionally been considered a male preserve. While large sections of society still struggle to accept the idea of a woman working as an undertaker or mortuary worker, Roja Sri is engaged in burying unclaimed bodies with all due rights and respect. .

Personally, life has been anything but smooth. In Chennai, she got married but months later her husband deceived and abandoned her, taking with him the few assets that she had got with her when she fled home. Today, she calls herself an orphan even though she has husband, father, brother and other relatives. But she makes up for the void by serving the poor and needy, treating them as her own.

The good deeds that she has been doing has won her three prestigious accolades and recognition— the SPT National Peace Award, an award from Dhagam Foundation honouring her and the SAIL Award (Save an Individual’s Life).

Tell us about your first experience.

The first experience was a bit hard to take in. It was a nine-month-old infant. I was taken aback on seeing an innocent infant lying lifeless. I had gone to the hospital and saw this couple cribbing about something. When I asked them, they said they did not have any money to bury and perform the rites; I agreed to honour the child by doing so. The undertaker demanded more money to bury the corpse, but I had only Rs. 600, I requested him to cremate the body and gave the ashes to the couple.  It all started there and still continues.

I do not want anyone to die like an orphan. I will perform the last rites in my way and pray for the soul to reach God’s abode without any hassle. I may not know their religion, caste, community, race but to me, there are humans first and then, either male or female. I do not bother about anything else!

How do you get information about unclaimed bodies?

All the police stations in Chennai have my mobile number and they call me up as soon as they get to know of any unclaimed dead body. An FIR will be filed by the police officers and a document permitting the burial of the orphaned body will be signed by the doctors of government hospitals. The police do not even give me the trouble of filing the documents from the hospital, I just get the body which is ready to bury. Moreover, they are happy with the fact that I’m lessening their burden by burying them and they do not have to shell out any money from their own pockets!

How many corpses have you buried till now?

I think the number would be above 1000; I bury around 4 or 5 bodies every day on average. 

How do you get financial aid for continuing your activities?

I work for a news magazine called ‘Indraya Makkal Paarvai’ and counsel people privately. With the meagre amount I get, I somehow manage to perform the final rituals. It costs around Rs. 2000 per body and I bear all the charges. The cops are more keen in getting the bodies disposed of. At times, they even ask for a tip indirectly, I buy them snacks or give them some money and take the body.

Has anyone ever claimed a body after burial?

Yes, it has happened once. A man was killed brutally near Sathya studio. The police department did not receive any complaint about the body for 45 days and hence I was called upon to bury it. A month later, a woman from Kerala came here and enquired about the person at the police station.

The cops asked her to file a complaint but later, it was found that she had deceived the police, and all the information furnished was wrong including the details in the complaint and the address. God knows the reason behind it! I have not received any update since.

Even if someone does claim a body later, I do not fear any harassment or action, as I receive information and requests from the police department itself. According to existing rules, if a body is unclaimed for more than 45 days from the day of death, it is declared as an unclaimed dead body.

Apart from this, what other activities do you keep yourself busy with?

I have dedicated my life to serving people. No one should suffer like I did, so I try to reach out to as many needy people as I can. If I see people lying on the road, I give them my clothes to wear, take them to the hospital if they are sick or take them to a home for better care. I also try and help needy kids to pay their school fees.

My dream is to open an orphanage or an NGO for the welfare of the people. I have already started reaching out to people for funds. I feel that with an NGO or orphanage, I can serve people in more ways and can reach more people than I’m doing now.

Who has been the greatest inspiration in your life?

My father is an example of how not to lead a life.

I derive inspiration from Dr APJ Abdul Kalam on how to lead a life, he did not possess anything but books, clothes and a watch during his last days and I want the same for myself. I do not want money, property, name or fame.

What is the one thing that makes you most happy?

I enjoy serving people. Many people living around me do not even interact with me just because I frequent the burial grounds, but then again, a number of individuals who are passionate about change visit me. They call me ‘Amma’ and treat me like their own mother, even though I may be younger to some of them. I feel charged up on seeing them. Serving people and seeing these children of mine bring me a lot of joy and make me forget my personal suffering.

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