Muslim woman cremator transcends barriers of gender, religion

Subeena Rahman shattered gender stereotypes by working as a cremator, is considered to be the first woman from the Muslim community to take up the profession in the southern state

Representative Image (Photo Courtesy: Social Media)
Representative Image (Photo Courtesy: Social Media)


While lighting the tiny oil brass lamp with cloth wicks every morning at the crematorium and waiting for the dead to arrive, Subeena Rahman never thinks of her religion.

With a shawl draped over her head, the Muslim woman, in her late 20s, knows better than anyone now that death has no religion and everyone is alone and empty-handed during their final journey.

Working as a crematorium keeper at a Hindu crematorium in Irinjalakuda in this central Kerala district for the last three years, this young undergraduate said she has cremated hundreds of corpses, including those of over 250 COVID positive people so far.

Even dripping with sweat in a PPE kit for hours while cremating the bodies of COVID victims back-to-back during the second wave of the pandemic, she never forgot to pray for the departed souls in her own way without the barrier of religion or belief.

Rahman, who has shattered gender stereotypes by turning a cremator, which is generally seen an odd job even by men, is considered to be the first woman from the Muslim community to take up the profession in the southern state.

However, the 28-year-old home-maker is bold enough to admit that it is not for breaking any glass shield but for earning daily bread for her family, sustain her husband and look after her ailing father, who was a wood-cutter.

She also does not mind asking to give her a job to those who are opposing and mocking her for being a crematorium keeper.

"The sight of motionless bodies, with closed eyes and cotton stuffed in nostrils, was a nightmare for me just like any other child. But, the dead bodies no longer scare me now," Rahman told PTI.

She said she had never ever imagined that she would turn a crematorium keeper as her childhood dream was to become a police officer.

"It is destiny that I should shoulder this responsibility and I am doing this job with utmost sincerity and dedication. I have never felt any regret for taking up this profession because I strongly believe that every job has its own dignity...and I am proud of what I am doing," she said.

Subeena Rahman was desperately looking for a job when she came to know about a vacancy in the SNBS Samajam Mukthisthan crematorium, run by the Ezhavas, a powerful backward Hindu community.

Besides Hindus, the bodies of Christian community members are also cremated at the gas crematorium.

Initially, her parents had concerns regarding the workplace, but she was adamant to grab the job as she knew she had to support her near ones.

Though there was no visible opposition from anyone including her community members, many expressed doubt whether the Hindu community would accept a Muslim woman as cremator.

According to Hindu traditions, women are not allowed to visit the cremation ground.

"Many people discouraged me saying the Hindu community members would not accept a woman, especially belonging to another religion for the job. But, no one has raised any objections so far and I could prove myself that gender and religion are no barrier for doing any job," a confident Rahman said.

The whole-hearted support extended by her husband, a daily wage earner, and his family and son Mohammed Irfan, was a great source of strength.

After completing the daily chores in the morning at home, Rahman would rush to the crematorium by 9.30 am.

With her two male colleagues, she would clean up the premises, removing the remnants of previous day's cremation and light the oil lamp, marking the beginning of the duty in the morning.

There were days when she had to work continuously for 14 hours, especially during the peak of COVID period.

"We get Rs 500 each per body, which is split among the three equally. Normally, we get 6-7 bodies every day. But, there were days when we had to cremate 12 COVID patients back-to-back in a day," Rahman reminisced.

Asked whether she remembers the first cremation she had performed, the young woman would say without waiting for a second that it was a 65-year-old man named Siddharthan, who died of heart failure.

The most painful occasion was the cremation of a five-year-old girl who slipped into a village pond accidentally and died.

"Her father was abroad. He came to see his daughter for the last time at the crematorium wearing a PPE kit. He broke down when he handed over the body of the little girl to me to take to the furnace. I could not control myself then," the woman said.

Otherwise, she would not carry any memories or faces, which she comes across at the crematorium while returning home and engaging in her evening chores at home.

"I am fully aware now that we cannot stop death. It will come to us all.. If we are born, death will surely follow us. There is no escape from it," Rahman concluded on a philosophical note.

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