No final touch or kiss: Funerals of COVID-19 victims are more painful for families

While protocols allow close relatives of COVID-19 victims one last glimpse of the face, they are not able to touch the body or bathe it, which hurts their religious sentiments.
People wearing PPE kit keeping flowers on a dead body of a COVID-19 victim before cremation
People wearing PPE kit keeping flowers on a dead body of a COVID-19 victim before cremation
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This story is a part of the TNM COVID-19 reporting project. To support this project, make a payment here.

Biju died of COVID-19 on May 3 even as his mother was battling with the novel coronavirus in the same hospital in Thiruvananthapuram city. Forty-seven-year-old Biju was a Christian, but he was cremated in an electric crematorium. His ashes and bones were collected a few days later from the crematorium and kept in a box at his house. Later, they were placed in a coffin and buried at the cemetery.
Deeply connected to religious faiths, the management of bodies of COVID-19 victims across the country has sparked off various discussions. "Cremation was not an easy decision for Biju’s family and us, but even at the hospital we were told that the body would be taken to the electric crematorium. There was no option for a burial,” Shalin John, Biju’s long-time family friend, tells TNM. Biju’s three children opted not to see their father one last time because they felt seeing him packed in a Personal Protective Equipment (PPE) kit was even harder. They were not allowed a final touch or kiss, or a proper funeral for Biju. Scores of others who lost their dear ones to COVID-19 had to suffer the same experience as Biju’s family.

“Yes, that has made it even more traumatic. There were no visitors with whom we usually share our grief and find solace. Biju’s siblings who are outside the state were not able to come, so there was no one to lean on,” Shalin recalls. Like Biju, Abraham*, a retired Union government employee who lived as a devout Christian and died of COVID-19, did not have a funeral as per religious norms. However, Abraham’s family were content that they could do a burial of his ashes with prayers at their church.

“For God-fearing families, there is a lack of closure without a burial. But since there is an instruction from the Vatican that cremation is allowed, we consoled ourselves with the cremation and burial of the ashes,” *Anand*, a family member of Abraham, tells TNM. Anand was referring to a October 2016 order from the Vatican, headquarters of the Roman Catholic Church, which had declared that if cremated, the remains be preserved in cemeteries or other approved sacred places, though it reiterated the church’s preference for burials over cremation.

However, this hasn’t gone down well with all believers even as it helped Abraham’s family take a tough call. 

Cremations preferred over burials

Ever since the pandemic struck, both burial and cremation of dead bodies adhering to COVID-19 protocols were allowed. This was in line with the World Health Organisation’s guidelines issued in March 2020. However, lack of burial space has stopped many Christian families from opting for a burial. While the guidelines initially stipulated 10 feet depth for burials, it was later relaxed to 6 feet. “Some churches in coastal regions have dug 6-foot graves inside the cemetery compound but in city areas, there has been no thought in that direction so far. In cities, churches have space constraints and bodies are now buried in cemetery cellars. It could be because of this that burial of COVID-19 victims is not encouraged in some churches,” Shalin adds.

However, there are exceptions to this. In July 2020, the Alappuzha Latin Catholic diocese issued a circular allowing cremation of bodies of parishioners who succumbed to COVID-19 at their respective church cemeteries.

“Burials in church cemeteries are allowed in the presence of a few people, ever since the first wave of the pandemic. But there are a few instances in which people had to cremate because of lack of facilities or because the cemetery was located far away. Prior to the 2016 Vatican order, believers were required to get the Pope’s permission to cremate, but it’s not needed anymore,” a source from the Latin Catholic Church tells TNM. “I lost 13 people who were close to me to COVID-19. Ten of them were Christians and none of them were buried,” Shalin further says.

This story is a part of the TNM COVID-19 reporting project. To support this project, make a payment here.

Proper funeral denied

Apart from deviations from religious rituals, there are other things denied to COVID-19 victims which adds to the trauma of their family members. “My mother battled COVID-19 for over a month. Seeing her in distress was indeed painful. That made us prepare for the worst and of course, we knew the funeral won’t be a normal one,” *Naveen*, a law professional from Kochi, tells TNM. Naveen lost his mother to COVID-19 in November 2020. The 65-year-old died soon after the state government revised the guidelines in October allowing dear ones to have a last glimpse of the person’s face before cremation or burial and permitting last rites without touching the body.

“On the morning she died, I visited the hospital in a PPE kit and was able to see her one last time. Later my sisters and father also did the same,” Naveen recalls. “After her death, only a few visitors came home and we family members consoled each other,” Naveen adds.

Since touching the body is not allowed, relatives are not able to bathe the dead body, a funerary practice of Hindus and Muslims, while Christians are unable to follow the practice of cleaning the body. “We were not allowed to bathe the body, we performed the rituals back at home,” Subramanian, who lost his cousin Panchali to COVID-19, tells TNM. If Naveen’s mother battled for life for a month, Panchali, who died in March this year, was diagnosed just 24 hours before her death. The 58-year-old from Palakkad was asymptomatic.

“She was taken to hospital in the night when she suddenly got wheezing. Her three sons and husband were devastated by the sudden death and even more heartbroken that she couldn’t get a proper funeral. It was crushing for them to bid adieu to her without being able to touch her, bathe the body, or give her a proper final farewell,” Subramanian says. Naveen’s family too was content with the 16-day Bali (offering to a deceased person done by Hindus) at home and later immersing the ashes in the sea. At crematoriums, it’s usual these days to see flowers placed on COVID-19 victims with some rituals performed outside or at the entrance by relatives wearing PPE kits.

Abdul Salam and his family, however, were not able to even see his mother’s face when she died in August 2020, before the guidelines allowed family members to have a last glimpse of the deceased. The 93-year-old, who died at the Manjeri Medical College in Malappuram, was buried in the mosque compound without the family being able to pay their final respects. Abdul, his three siblings – two brothers and a sister – had also tested positive. While Abdul was admitted in the Kozhikode Medical College, his mother and siblings were admitted in the Manjeri Medical College.

“We were in the hospital for a week. Mother was in the ICU, which was at the other end of the ward. But we weren’t allowed to see her. At that time the protocol was so rigid that we had no other option but to accept it,” Adbul’s elder brother Abdul Rahiman tells TNM. “The whole experience was very traumatic and actually, we haven’t come out of it yet. But we’re religious people, we believe in faith and so we consoled ourselves with that,” Abdul tells TNM. “My two brothers who were in the same hospital weren’t even allowed to have a last look. My brothers pleaded a lot, but the authorities strictly followed the protocols,” he adds. The family was not able to do any of the last rites too, such as reading religious texts, which was also allowed only with the October 2020 guidelines.

Samastha Kerala Jem-iyyathul-Ulama, the largest body of Sunni Muslim Scholars and Clerics in Kerala, had submitted a memorandum to the government in February to allow burials of people who died from COVID-19 with proper religious regard and respect, as the existing protocol didn’t allow a decent funeral. 

This story is a part of the TNM COVID-19 reporting project. To support this project, make a payment here.

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