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The five bodies had been lying at the government hospital in Vellore for one and a half months. The dead, including a woman, were more than 65 years old and their bodies had remained unclaimed at the hospital mortuary.

Last Wednesday, P Manimaran stepped in and performed the last rites for all of them.

It was nothing new for the 33-year-old social worker and his team. They were among the 1008 bodies which have been given a dignified funeral by the young man since 2002.

Manimaran, as he does in similar situations, secured permission from the police and performed the funeral in the presence of the force’s personnel on the banks of the Palar River.

A school dropout from an agricultural family in Thalayampallam village near the temple town of Tiruvannamalai, he has been performing the finals rites for those whose bodies are not claimed by anyone.

Through his non-governmental organisation, World People’s Service Centre (WPSC), Manimaran has carried out funerals across Tamil Nadu and at many places in the north including Varanasi.

“We have volunteers in 17 states who give information. We secure clearance from the police beforehand. We do not solicit money. If anyone volunteers, we accept only materials required for the funeral like flowers and so on,” he says.

“The 1008 funerals were spread over the years since 2002,” he adds.

In recognition of his service, he received the State Youth Award from former chief minister J Jayalalithaa in 2015 and the Centre’s award for best Social Service in December that year. He has also been honoured with few other awards.

“My inspiration was Mother Teresa… As an 18-year-old, I visited Kolkata to see her in person. The selfless work done by the Sisters of Charity in taking care of the destitute and the dying moved me,” he says.

But it was his father, Pandurangan, who left an indelible mark on him.

“In our village, people do not bury those afflicted by leprosy in the graveyard. They are detested and kept away. They dumped them in the forest off the farmlands,” he says.

“Our farmland was close to the forest and one such body was buried without a proper burial pit. The next morning my father noticed wild animals having mutilated the body. He dug up a pit and laid it to rest, saying we should treat the dead with dignity,” he adds.

Apart from performing the last rites for unclaimed bodies, he also helps out leprosy patients in and around Tiruvannamalai.

“I am engaged in the textile business, though not in a big way. I get orders from the north for T-Shirts manufactured in Tirupur and supply them to dealers and get kurtas and other material from the north for sale here,” Manimaran says.

“I have earmarked 90% of the profit for this service. I am not dependent on any funding,” he says.