People | Servant of the dead … The only undertaker in the Cook Islands

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Leelesh Chandar. Picture: SUPPLIED

One look at Leelesh Chandar and you would think he does the usual eight to five job.

But the 43-year-old from Ba is far from being the office type.

He is the only undertaker in the Cook Islands. That may sound spooky but his work is as important as it is demanding.

Like other undertakers or funeral directors he specialises in preparing the dead for their final journey ‘home’, a job that entails embalming, burial or cremation of the dead, as well as the arrangements for the funeral ceremony.

Leelesh arrived in Cook Islands 18 years ago to work in the construction industry, but his life took a surprise turn when he was offered a job as an undertaker.

In this new role, he was on call 24 hours a day and attended to any case of death, be it natural or unnatural.

“This job was new to me and I didn’t have any training. It was a different environment,” he said.

“Dealing with dead bodies is an emotional job. I have had to attend to accidents and collected body parts from the road. This job is not for the

Today, Leelesh does embalming, assists doctors with post-mortem examinations, collects the remains of the dead from an accident scene and
prepares the body for final funeral rites.

“The most difficult part of the job is preparing the body. One small mistake and you are going to ruin the whole funeral. The family has put their trust in you.”

“If there is a mistake in my embalming, the body will start to smell — so I have to be very careful and do the job properly so that families can send off their loved ones with love and respect.

“So far, I haven’t disappointed anyone, and I am proud of serving my people here in the Cook Islands.”

Leelesh lives alone in Rarotonga while his whole family is in New Zealand.

The company that he works for has its head office in NZ.

“My future plan is to have my own business here and that’s why I am working on a plan to build a crematorium in the Cooks as the island is
running out of ground to bury the dead.”

“I have already made submissions to the government here and the churches are supportive of the idea to have a crematorium.”

Taking care of the dead and sending them off on their final journey is a good business and Leelesh’s company charges $5000 for local funerals and $15,000 or more if a body is required to be sent overseas.

“First I will go and see the family and explain to them that I will embalm the body and they got to keep their loved one at home rather than at the mortuary.”

“The cost will be for the casket, embalming and transportation costs.”

Leelesh handled about 100 bodies from 2020 to 2022. So far this year he has provided his services to 163 families all by himself.

“When I was growing up in the Fiji Sugar Corporation lanes in Ba, I didn’t have the faintest idea that I would be doing this job one day.

“I didn’t complete my primary school, let alone go to high school. What I am today, I achieved through my hard work, and I am proud.

“Working alone is tiring as I have to lift and move bodies so I hope to hire an extra person soon who can assist me.

“I have been here for 18 years and in another two years I will become a citizen and I will continue to serve my people here in the Cook Islands which I now call home.”