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Understanding The Question Of Cremation Or Burial – COVID 19 Deaths

In Islam, the religious instruction is to bury the dead. Cremation is forbidden

by Mass L. Usuf

Triple tragedy! Not being able to be close to your loved one at the time of his/her death. The death itself. Then, the undignified send off. These are the after-effects of a Covid-19 death. It is a deeply painful experience for the loved ones which no word dares to express. A feeling that will keep on upsetting you, renewing the grief each time and this will continue for quite some time after the loss. All of us are destined to die and die only once. Funerals are, therefore, unique as it takes place only once and it is overwhelming. Any stricken family normally tries to seek transitory consolation by ensuring that the loved person is given a dignified and memorable farewell. If this is also not possible, what can anyone do? Such are wickedly drowned in hopelessness, helplessness and extreme vulnerability unable to fulfil whatever is desired to the departed soul. This state further engulfs them with an inextricable sense of sorrow.


Before continuing further, in these most trying circumstances, it is very important that we recognise with honour and respect those in the frontline of this pandemic. The medics and all the ancillary services directly or indirectly engaged in the frontier. They are bravely fighting this ‘war’ on our behalf, you and me, obviously putting their life at high risk. We ought to remember that they too have families.

President Gotabhaya Rajapakshe and his government being aware of this great danger are doing their best, the bureaucracy, the task forces and the various adhoc bodies that have been formed are all struggling in facing this challenge. Those persons in uniform and others are also rendering a huge service. So many others, all of whom cannot be named herein, deserve our prayers, well wishes and gratitude. Let us shed all our differences and collectively bond to face and overcome this scourge unitedly.

Sky Burial, Burial, Cremation

Almost everyone, some way or the other, is bounded by religion and religious traditions. Naturally, the disposal of a dead body is also bound by religious significance since the deceased has departed from his/her earthly sojourn. Beliefs, traditions, rituals and practices dictate as to how the dead has to be laid to rest. The ancient Zoroastrians believed that the burial or cremation of the corpse would pollute water and soil which was forbidden in their religion. Therefore, in India, a Parsi’s dead body is placed in a built-up place called a ‘Dakhma’ known as the Tower of Silence. Here birds of prey like vultures would devour it. This 3,000-year-old ritual is called ‘sky burial’.

The Tibetan Buddhists also practise Sky burials in their traditional methods of body disposals. It is their belief that such a disposal illustrates the impermanence (anicca) of life.

In Islam, the religious instruction is to bury the dead. Cremation is forbidden.

Today, in this crucial and challenging times, the third of the triple tragedy lies in the thought of a loved one being cremated. An absolutely unacceptable proposition to a Muslim or a Jew and for most Christians. It is unimaginable for a Muslim to allow his/her loved one to be cremated. This religious sentiment has to be recognised with humanity and mutual respect. It is not something new that is demanded but has been in practise for thousands of years as is in all religious traditions.

It must be emphasised that this prohibition in Islam is flexible. Islamic jurisprudence has provision for cremation if that is what is medically required for the common good of all the living beings – maṣlaḥah (public interest). Rationally, in addressing this topic, specific to burial, what needs to be looked at is the medical viewpoint.

Medical Science Considerations

Incubation: According to the World Health Organisation (WHO), the incubation period for the novel corona virus is estimated at 5 to 6 days, ranging from 0 to 14 days. When compared with the Ebola virus, the incubation period, or the time interval from infection to onset of symptoms, is from 2 to 21 days. Comparatively, Ebola virus is a high-risk contagion identified as a fatal disease.

Mortality Rates: The death rate for Ebola virus disease (formerly known as Ebola haemorrhagic fever) can go up to 90%. The mortality rate of the new coronavirus is around 1% according to UK’s chief medical officer, Chris Whitty. The World Health Organization’s director general, Dr Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, talked of 3.4%. (The Guardian, 24.03.2020).

Infection After Death: Levels of Ebola virus remain high after death, thus bodies of those who have died from Ebola virus disease must be handled only by people wearing appropriate personal protective equipment and must be buried immediately. WHO advises that bodies of people who may have died from Ebola virus disease should be handled only by trained burial teams, who are equipped to properly bury the dead, safely and with dignity.
(https://www.who.int/emergencies/diseases/ebola/frequently-asked-questions).

In contrast, the after-death infection in Covid-19 is explained very clearly by the Royal College of Pathologists, U.K. It states as follows “with regard to the risk to Mortuary staff, it is greater from visitors than the deceased from the Covid-19.” (https://www.rcpath.org/G200-TBPs-Guidance-for-care-of-

Burials: Ebola virus can persist in used needles, syringes or vials for several weeks. The virus can persist in the body fluids of survivors for many months, and can be transmitted well after recovery, or in rare cases can result in relapse - as we have already seen during the outbreak. Despite the high-risk levels of the Ebola virus disease 26,000 safe and dignified BURIALS had been conducted as per the remarks by Dr. Ibrahima Socé Fall (World Health Organization Assistant Director-General, Emergency Response, 6 March 2020 Statement).

From a medical science point of view burial of a covid-19 corpse has been accepted.

Countries Which Allow Burials

The protocols for BURIAL of the deceased of the Covid-19 are already in place in several countries.

NSW Government, Australia: In the Statement on handling of bodies by funeral directors, it said that “Funeral directors and mortuary personnel are unlikely to contract COVID-19 from deceased persons infected with the virus, however the following precautionary strategies should be used to minimise public health risks and to prevent spread of disease: (https://www.health.nsw. gov.au/Infectious/factsheets/Pages/covid-19-funeral-directors.aspx)

Nevada, USA: At this time, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) states that decedents with COVID-19 may be BURIED or cremated according to the family’s preferences. The state of Nevada specifically clarified and said “Decedents with COVID-19 can be buried or cremated.” (National Funeral Directors Association (NFDA), 23.03.2020)

Malaysia: Malaysian Islamic Development Department (Jakim) has issued strict orders on how to prepare covid-19 bodies for BURIAL. (THESTAR, 24.03.2020).

India: Ministry of Health and Family Welfare in India has issued these guidelines for its citizens with regard to protocols to be followed in the case of BURIALS. (https://www.indiatoday.in/information/story/coronavirus-death-india-how-handle-covid-19-dead-bodies-1657799-2020-03-20).

United Kingdom: The National Burial Council has been working with Public Health England to best plan for facilitating the BURIAL of Muslims who pass away from COVID-19. In answer to the question, “What is the UK Government position on enforced cremation?”, the following was the reply.

“On 23 March, the UK Government has confirmed that the emergency legislation to deal with the COVID-19 pandemic will now recognise the importance of ensuring faith communities are able to bury the deceased instead of cremating in the event of significant deaths due to Coronavirus. The legislation has now made clear that enforced cremation against the wishes of the individual, will not take place when there are burial facilities available.
(https://mcb.org.uk/community/burialfaqs/)

Europe: European Centre for Disease Prevention and Control (ECDC) Technical Report: Decedents with confirmed or suspected COVID-19 can be BURIED or cremated as usual. (Stockholm: ECDC; 2020).

An examination of these precedents will help us to formulate our local policy in this regard. It is very clear that there is no danger to public in burying the dead from Covid-19. Of course, the final wish of the deceased and/or the family members have to be respected. Anyone who wishes to be cremated, such wish has to be carried out. In any event, a Muslim’s wish will always be a burial. Those who died of the Ebola virus disease had been buried even though it was a more infectious virus. In comparison, there should not be an issue in burying the decedents of the Covid-19 virus. However, it is extremely important that guidelines for handling covid-19 bodies are strictly followed.

The end.

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