Burial or cremation: What is a safer funeral if someone dies of Covid-19?

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When a person dies, his/her body has to be disposed of and under normal circumstances, religion takes over in these matters with an elaborately laid out rituals. But novel coronavirus pandemic has not only presented a health and economic crisis but also a crisis of faith in the final journey of humans.

Funeral rites of those succumbing to Covid-19 have been an issue of controversy at least in China, Sri Lanka and also in India. Should the body of a Covid-19 victim be cremated or buried?

A majority of the population across the world prefer to bury their dead. The World Health Organisation (WHO), too, does not prohibit the burial of those dying of Covid-19. It had issued an elaborated instruction in the times of Ebola outbreak in Africa, where some had objected to burial citing the highly infectious nature of the disease.

In the case of Covid-19, the pathogen novel coronavirus transmits from one person to another through droplets. This means it requires body fluid to keep finding new victims. Usually, burial takes 7-10 days in the decomposition of a body. The body retains fluid for three-four days.

So theoretically, novel coronavirus can transmit during preparing the body for burial or if the grave is shallow over three-four days after the death. In the case of cremation, ashes don’t present that risk.

China, where novel coronavirus outbreak took place first in December, decided to cremate the bodies. In many cases, bodies of Covid-19 patients were cremated immediately after the death and even in the absence of family members without giving any consideration of the religious belief of the coronavirus victim.

Some protested the unilateral decision of the Chinese authorities to cremate the Covid-19 victims. To counter-protest cremation instead of burial, China’s national health commission issued a formal order on February 2 directing the local authorities to immediately cremate bodies of Covid-19 victims. It laid out a procedure on how to do it.

The cremation order of the Chinese government became more controversial as it said the bodies could be disposed of by cremation even if the family objected to it or refused to comply with the orders. Simply put, those dying of novel coronavirus infection became some kind of “state property”.

In India, the Union health ministry allows both burial and cremation of the dead body in the manner wished, if at all, expressed by the victim or her family. The guidelines say that the body would be handled by a trained health professional, who must be wearing full personal protective equipment (PPE).

The dead body should be placed in a leak-proof plastic body bag, the exterior of which can be decontaminated with 1 per cent hypochlorite. The body bag can be wrapped with a mortuary sheet or sheet provided by the family members.

Unzipping of bag for viewing face of the dead person is allowed. Nose and mouth of the body should be plugged to prevent oozing out of any body fluid. But the body cannot be bathed, kissed or hugged. Family members – not in large numbers – are allowed to read religious prayers or sprinkle holy water according to their belief but without touching the body.

The guidelines, which were issued by the Centre when the Covid-19 toll in India was in single-digit, say that only the lungs of dead Covid-19 patients if handled during an autopsy, can be infectious. However, the advisory also recommends avoiding autopsy. Embalming of the body is also prohibited.

Thus managed, the body of a Covid-19 patient can be either buried or cremated.

But controversy erupted earlier this month when an elderly person’s body had to be cremated against the religious belief suggesting burial. The deceased’s family said they were denied permission to bury the body at a cemetery.

The same week, Brihanmumbai Municipal Corporation (BMC) – enjoying powers under the Epidemic Act of 1897 – issued a circular, making cremation mandatory for all deaths due to Covid-19. The circular was, however, later amended to allow burial with certain conditions.

The death of an 85-year-old surgeon on March 27 had led to the issuing of this circular. The family of the deceased, who had died of Covid-19, buried his body without following the protocol.

In the case of burial, the circular said the burial ground should be large without specifying the measurements. The burial should take place in a deep grave. A large gathering has to be avoided.

In neighbouring Sri Lanka, the government made cremation of body mandatory if the deceased is a Covid-19 patient or suspected to have novel coronavirus infection. The order has been resented by Muslims in Sri Lanka. But the government has cited the highly infectious nature of novel coronavirus to dismiss the objections on account of faith.

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About the author: Sohom Das
Founder of Tuccho.

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