Death is often a merciful release, if it is an old person suffering in pain. It is those left behind who go through the trauma of loss and bereavement.
However, when my husband passed away in May after a prolonged and painful battle with cancer, I had not reckoned with the kind of problems and harassments that I am still facing, two months after the event.
These problems were unconnected to the issue of losing a spouse—in hindsight, I feel at least the conventional bereavement-related traumas could be coped with prayer or counselling or philosophical acceptance. The 'post-death traumas' I am referring to here, are different – and far more corrosive and maddening.
Strings had to be pulled even for carrying out the cremation. “You can only get a slot at the crematorium after three days” said the person in charge. Getting some friend with influence helped, in getting permission for an earlier slot.
Getting a death certificate turned out to be a huge harassment. The crematorium gives a receipt but it is necessary to get a 'proper' death certificate from the municipal corporation. That too, 'within 21 days' as per the rules.
We began running to the corporation office from the third day. It was always “Go to the corporation office in the other ward” or “Go to the head office” or “Get a counterfoil from the crematorium.”
Almost 20 days went in running hither and thither ('fill this form' and when you do that, 'get it countersigned by a notary' or some variation of that, to make us run around). Without that 'official certificate' from the corporation, nothing can move – bank accounts cannot be closed, money cannot be withdrawn or transferred even to a nominee.
One needs to run around, for notary’s signature, and signature of two witnesses. (Even buying stamp paper was a problem, since the curfew imposed during May for the coronavirus outbreak had resulted in most offices working only restricted hours).
It is our money, but the banks hang on to it for dear life. We are still running around, filling up forms and submitting them, to complete the formalities, after daily visits over several weeks.
And everywhere, the hapless family is milked even in death – the cremation charges are Rs50, according to a large announcement painted at the entrance, but we were charged Rs800. How does one argue, with a dead body on hand? If you don’t pay up, your work does not get done.
The ambulance from the hospital to the crematorium likewise, charged Rs1,020 for a distance of three kms. By the time we left the crematorium, we had spent Rs12,000.
The death certificate from the municipal corporation is supposed to cost Rs130. Again, we had to shell out Rs800 ('otherwise, no certificate'), and without this piece of paper, nothing can move, including bank accounts even if a nominee is recorded in the bank’s books.
We were in fact, relieved to get the certificate on the 20th day or within the mandated 21 day limit.
With this document in hand, we began the rounds of the banks, to close accounts standing in my husband’s name and transfer the balance to our joint accounts. This again involved filling endless forms making daily trips to the banks, to submit one set of forms and collect another.
These had to be submitted with an affidavit, or notarised, with two witnesses. Affix photos on the forms, enclose copies of the death certificate. We were well advised to pay for and obtain 10 copies, for which, of course, one pays extra.
This went on, for over a month, making daily pilgrimages to the bank manager’s offices.
In the meantime, fresh cheque books had to be applied for and obtained, to pay for sundry expenses.
Even when it was a joint account, I discovered that my name had been added by hand on the passbook, so the cheque leaves did not have my name printed. It had not even occurred to me to check, since it was my husband, who always signed cheques.
The nationalised banks were the worst in terms of service, especially State Bank of India (and Bank of India).
After two months, we are still not in sight of a resolution and settlement. SMSs and one time passwords (OTP) continue to come to my deceased husband’s mobile phone.
Want to change the phone number? Fill another sheaf of papers, affix photographs, sign here, sign there, enclose photocopies of Aadhaar card.
Even my marriage certificate was needed in one case. I was married 59 years ago, cannot even remember whether I had a marriage certificate.
What do people who cannot afford to run around like this endlessly, do, to lay their hands on savings that are legally and legitimately, theirs, according to the will?
What happens when there is a premature death of a young person, who has not left a will behind?
My guess is that all hurdles can be cleared, if the right palms are greased with adequate amounts. What a shame.
Claiming medical reimbursement was yet another messy hurdle, necessitating the submission of endless forms and declarations, scanning of hospital and pharmaceutical bills.
Death is a natural process for all living beings. Sooner or later, it occurs.
Do the survivors have to be treated as if they are out to swindle the bank to which their hard-earned savings have been entrusted? Who makes these rules, for whose protection or benefit?
I often stop to ask myself these questions in the midst of my bereavement and the practical day-to-day problems that crop up in the wake of the death of a family member…
(Dr Sakuntala Narasimhan is a Bengaluru-based senior journalist, writer, musician, and consumer activist. She is a renowned senior vocalist in both traditions of Indian classical music - Hindustani and Carnatic, an A-graded artiste of All India Radio in both traditions. She is also a musicologist and author, and has written a book on the Rampur gharana.)