Jayant Malhotra says he won’t ever forget the sight of the bodies. They arrived in a relentless, urgent flow for cremation—a service he and his father offer in New Delhi free-of-charge for victims of Covid-19. Exhausted workmen prepared row upon row of funeral pyres, struggling to keep pace with the scale of death as the solemn Hindu rite became a symbol of a besieged nation’s shared grief.

“We were cremating 20 bodies by noon. Before we could finish those, there were 10 more. By afternoon, there were 10 more,” said Mr. Malhotra, who is 23 years old, describing several weeks in April and May in the national capital. “We’ve seen such horrors.”

With each body came a tale of a life—and a death. One man died in a hospital parking lot where he had spent the night waiting for a bed to become available. Others were parents, their bodies collected by volunteers from homes and mortuaries because their children live overseas and were unable to return. Families have mourned the loss of two, sometimes three or even four members as the coronavirus tore through households, Mr. Malhotra said.

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