Funerals in the time of Coronavirus

COVID-19 National

Though WHO said that burial of the mortal remains of the patients dying of COVID-19 is not more dangerous than cremation, citizens across states are taking a stand against burials and demand the bodies be cremated.

By Shalu Chowrasia,

Funerals today are sadder than they used to be. On April 3 night, when a few policemen and healthcare workers were burying a COVID-19 patient’s dead body at Geskin Bazaar, West Bengal’s cemetery, five of his relatives including his younger sister were taken to a government quarantine facility. They were not allowed to be a part of the funeral.

On the other hand, when the locals came to know, they crowded the main road opposite to the cemetery the next morning. One of the locals, who did not wish to be named, said: “We are sorry for the grieving family, but we don’t want infections in our area.” He added that the person was buried at an odd hour without the knowledge of any of the locals. Instances like these do not seem to stop. People across states remain worried that the burials of COVID-19 patients are not safe. 

However, the COVID-19 dead body management guidelines released by Ministry of Health & Family Welfare in India clearly states: “The main driver of transmission of COVID-19 is through droplets. There is unlikely to be an increased risk of COVID infection from a dead body to health workers or family members who follow standard precautions while handling the body. Only the lungs of dead COVID patients, if handled during an autopsy, can be infectious.”

Reportedly, on April 1, when a 65-year-old man from suburban Malad had died of the infection, his family members alleged that they had to cremate the dead body after the trustees of a cemetery denied permission for burial. A similar incident occurred in Ranchi on April 12, when the burial of a COVID-19 patient at Ratu road cemetery made hundreds of locals to crowd the street to protest against it for three hours at the cost of breaking the lockdown rules. The officials had to seal the gates of the cemetery and assure that the body would not be buried there, to calm down the crowd. Under the Epidemic Diseases Act, the officials have the authority to decide about the disposal of bodies to curb the spread of disease.

On March 30, the Brihanmumbai Municipal Corporation (BMC) had reportedly issued a circular directing that all COVID-19 casualties in Mumbai should be cremated and that funerals should not include more than five people. The next day, after facing backlash, Maharashtra minister Nawab Malik tweeted to announce that the BMC has withdrawn the circular:

In Indian society, funerals, in most cultures, are to celebrate the life of the deceased; it is a way people bond and share grief. The restrictions on the post-death rituals and the stigma surrounding the dead bodies of COVID-19 patients add to the grief of the relatives. Rationalist Narendra Nayak pointed out that problem of viral contamination from the dead body of a COVID-19 patient exists only if the attendants do not take necessary precautions while handling it. He said: “The protest by the locals is capable of spreading more contamination because of disregard to physical distancing. It does not affect them if necessary precautions are being taken.”

Guidelines to be followed at Crematorium/Burial Ground (by Ministry of Health & Family Welfare)

  • Religious rituals such as reading from religious scripts, sprinkling holy water and any other last rites that do not require touching of the body can be allowed.  
  • Bathing, kissing, hugging, etc. of the dead body should not be allowed. 
  • The funeral/ burial staff and family members should perform hand hygiene after cremation/burial. 
  • The ash does not pose any risk and can be collected to perform the last rites. 
  • The large gathering at the crematorium/ burial ground should be avoided as a social distancing measure as it is possible that close family contacts may be symptomatic and/ or shedding the virus.

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