Meet Kolkata’s First Lady of Funerals
There’s at least one dead body waiting for Shruti Reddy Sethi every morning at work
On her to-do list for today: acquire four death certificates, transport a corpse from the Kolkata airport to Murshidabad in rural Bengal, then finalise a tie-up with a neighbourhood hospital to promote her company. Death is the money spinner of Sethi’s business operation, Anthyesti, a bespoke funeral service.
In 2016, Sethi’s corporate job felt like ordering rum and coke in a cocktail bar: safe but boring. “Then my husband got transferred to Kolkata, and we moved. That’s when I decided to start something new,” she says.
As she started observing life around her in Kolkata, Sethi’s eyes discovered a city full of vintage yellow Ambassadors passing by crumbling buildings inhabited by senior citizens. She’s describing the Cal of my childhood — where summer vacations were spent running around the yard in my Amma’s house — except Sethi’s motives were entirely morbid. “Most people seemed to leave the city for work and settle elsewhere, leaving their parents behind. There’s just a really high population of retired people here,” Sethi explains. “If there are wedding and birthday planners, why don’t we have funeral planners too?”
To a family filled with government servants, Sethi’s decision was bonkers, at best. Her mum demanded to know how an expensive engineering degree culminated in funeral planning. Her friends made fun of her behind her back. The deluge of dismissals continued for several months. The hospitals she approached to advertise Anthyesti were especially incensed. “We are saving lives here; you cannot advertise services for the dead,” she was told on several occasions.
To top it all, even when a call came in, it was usually some heartbroken lover mistaking Anthyesti for a suicide-prevention helpline. “We didn’t know how to explain to them that we can only help once there’s a death. We do not prevent it,” Sethi says.
The general lack of belief might have discouraged any first-time entrepreneur, except that Sethi noticed a lot of requests for funeral planners on Just Dial. That’s where she landed her first big gig. After the funeral service was completed, the freezer box had to be sanitized and washed, so she rolled up her sleeves and went to work using Dettol, a kitchen scrubber and Mr Muscle.
As the body count increased, Sethi reveals their original inhabitants also began visiting her office uninvited. Disembodied footsteps, sudden loud noises and doors squeaking without being opened provided them with their own horror movie soundtrack. Working late one night, Sethi decided to confront the spirits. “Whatever we’re doing, we’re doing it for your own good. Don’t trouble us.” They’ve kept their peace ever since.
In 2018, Sethi won the National Entrepreneurship Award, bringing official recognition from the government. Anthyesti also crossed state borders, with the number of requests exploding from just a handful to over 100 every month. The service’s popularity can be put down to the range of customisation and pre-booking options on offer. Packages range between ₹7,000 and ₹20,000. You can select your vehicle, pick your favourite pandit and choose between mogras and roses when designing your floral arrangement. You can even select your funeral playlist.
For these services, hospitals are more welcoming than ever, and the local morgues have her on speed dial. Sethi — Kolkata’s First Lady of Funerals — is happy to report her company just turned profitable. Fortunately for her, science may have slowed down the ageing process but hasn’t yet cracked the code to immortality. Death is, after all, the only constant in life, and as Amma always said, it’s better to be prepared.