Why the world must witness pictures of India’s mass Covid-19 cremations

Weeks ago, the Indian capital ran out of space for its dead.

New Delhi’s public parks and parking lots were converted into sites for mass cremations of Hindus, Sikhs, and Jains. Cremations are an important Hindu funeral ritual, but Indian crematoria declared that they were out of wood for pyres, and burial grounds for the city’s Muslims and Christians reached capacity.

As the current wave of India’s Covid-19 epidemic has claimed tens of thousands of lives and infected hundreds of thousands each day, aerial photographs of grounds strewn with burning logs and piles of ash have made their way to the front pages of international newspapers and spread across social media.

On roads outside overflowing hospitals, desperate people await beds for relatives dying in their arms, and the bereaved break down. Inside, photos capture patients preparing to face their fate even as health care workers go about the work of keeping them alive. Then there are the pictures of front-line workers performing final rites — lighting pyres and lowering bodies into graves — of those they don’t even know.

These smoky compositions, punctuated by PPE-adorned figures, will be the defining images of India’s coronavirus nightmare. As an art critic, my work revolves around seeing and responding to images through language. Now, I find myself at a loss for words, dwelling on banal details outside the frame — how did people get to the hospital, where are the homes they return to, how are cremation workers processing the sheer number of pyres they must light?