Fifty-year-old mother of three, Fathima Shakeela died on December 14 while undergoing treatment at the Homagama Base Hospital. Shakeela has been receiving treatment for a kidney ailment for more than one and half years. Incidentally, she was tested positive for COVID-19 when she went to the National Hospital for her third dialysis, which was earlier fixed for November 31 but later postponed for December 10 because of the large influx of patients and pandemic-related issues.
Less than five days after her admission to hospital, Shakeela passed away, reportedly due to complications arising from COVID-19 and her long battle with kidney disease and diabetes. Shakeela’s 58-year-old husband M.R.L. Nihmathulla who did not believe the PCR test results, demanded a test-result report from the hospital to which the hospital did not agree. Then, he requested for official approval to carry out a private PCR test on the body so that he and their family could make sure that his wife actually had contracted the coronavirus. That request was also turned down because of the prevailing health and security concerns.
According to the government’s much critisized mandatory cremation policy, Shakeela’s body was scheduled for cremation. However, Nihmathulla did not sign the required papers and instead sought assistance from Human Rights Commission of Sri Lanka (HRCSL). Meanwhile, the body is still at the hospital mortuary, awaiting government instructions.
“Under Islamic law, the management of dead bodies is based on specific rules to ensure the dignity and respect of the dead as well as for their living relatives. According to Islamic tradition, the burial of a deceased person is a collective obligation by the Muslim community. This obligation consists of ritual washing of dead bodies, shrouding the body with pieces of cloth and finally a funeral prayer,” Nihmathulla explained.
He is determined to fight until he receives the body to perform the final religious rites for his wife and send her off as she always wished. Among the 181 who had died of COVID-19 in Sri Lanka so far, more than 50 were Muslims whose bodies have been cremated. Despite much outrage and protests in the country, the government has not arrived at a final decision with regard to this matter.
"According to an interim guidance report set out by the World Health Organization on the safe management of a dead body in the context of COVID-19; victims of the virus can be buried or cremated"
Similar to Shakeela’s incident, the Galle Magistrate’s Court on Monday (21) issued an order to retain the body of a COVID-19 victim until the Health Ministry reaches a final decision with regard to burials.
A request was made from Court by the family to prevent the body from being cremated until a decision is taken on burials by the expert committee appointed in this regard. The family had requested Court to permit the body to be placed in a freezer-container at the Karapitiya Teaching Hospital in Galle.
The move came after it was reported that Health Services Director Dr. Asela Gunawardena had suggested during a recent meeting that the remains of Muslim COVID-19 victims be placed in freezer-containers until a final decision is reached on the issues pertaining to burials.
At a discussion headed by the Prime Minister and Health Minister, it was suggested to the Justice Minister to provide freezer-containers to store bodies of Muslim COVID-19 victims until a decision is reached on the burial matter.
A much distressed community
Frustrated Muslim families in Sri Lanka whose relatives were cremated during the coronavirus pandemic believe that what was done in violation of their religious traditions is clear-cut injustice to their community.
Against this backdrop, some Muslim families have begun to disown their dead. Subsequently, bodies of Muslim COVID-19 victims have begun to pile up in hospital morgues. That is when the government started cremation of the unclaimed bodies.
Sri Lanka’s Muslim community, which makes up 9% of the population, have been victimized in the fallout of the Ampara infertility pill (wandapethi) controversy resulting in attacks which later spread to Kandy and the gruesome Easter Sunday attacks carried out by extremist Muslims.
The Human Rights Commission of Sri Lanka, which received several complaints, wrote to the Health Ministry recently. It said mandating the cremation of those who have died or suspected to have died from COVID-19 is neither necessary nor proportionate to the achievement of protection of public health and therefore is not a permissible restriction of the freedom to manifest religion or beliefs.
“The Human Rights Commission of Sri Lanka have received complaints and expressions of concern from persons of various religious groups including Muslims, Christians and Buddhists on their inability to perform final religious rites after the death of persons in the context of COVID-19. Among the concerns raised, is the forcible removal of bodies, the lack of a standard procedure for determining whether the deceased person has in fact succumbed to the virus, lack of transparency surrounding the process and doubts as to the mandatory cremation requirement?
Amnesty International (AI) in a statement recently stated that Sri Lanka’s authorities must respect the right of religious minorities to carry out the final rites of their relatives in accordance with their own traditions unless they can show that restrictions are needed to prevent the spread of COVID-19.
Meanwhile, the United Nations resident coordinator for Sri Lanka and UN regional groups have all written to the Sri Lankan government calling for the COVID-19 dead to be handled with dignity and their religious beliefs respected.
Silent protests were held by groups representing different religions in solidarity with Muslims and Christians who have been forced to cremate their loved ones, who were victims of COVID-19.
In addition to silent protests in the country, Sri Lankans overseas are also staging protests in cities in several Western countries against the cremation policy. Sri Lankan expatriates in Toronto, Canada organized a protest and a vehicle parade recently against the forced cremation of Sri Lankan Muslims, who had died of COVID-19.
A similar protest was also organized on December 19 in Paris, France by representatives of the France-Sri Lanka Muslim Association and several other Sri Lankan organisations. Protests have also been organized in New York, USA, in London and in Geneva.
What will the Government do?
When some 185 countries allow burials of COVID-19 victims, Sri Lanka is one of the few countries in the world which has made cremations mandatory.
Chief Epidemiologist, Dr. Sugath Samaraweera has claimed that burials would contaminate drinking water resources but it has not been scientifically proven. According to an interim guidance report set out by the World Health Organization on the safe management of a dead body in the context of COVID-19; victims of the virus can be buried or cremated. Following the recommendation however, the Ministry of Health guidelines originally permitted both burials and cremations earlier this year. But, it changed to mandatory cremation after the second wave.
"Under Islamic law, the management of dead bodies is based on specific rules to ensure the dignity and respect of the dead as well as for their living relatives"
Environment Minister Mahinda Amaraweera, recently told the media that the government will take a final decision on the advice of a committee appointed by the Ministry of Health. In the meantime, reports of the Maldivian Government stepping into bury Sri Lankan Muslim COVID-19 victims came into the limelight. Accordingly, Dr. Hemantha Herath, the Deputy Director-General of Public Health Services told Daily Mirror that following the communiqué received by the Foreign Ministry, the Ministry, informed the Health Ministry to prepare a set of guidelines and see the practicality of such a request since it had been officially communicated by the Maldivian Government.
Despite Prime Minister Mahinda Rajapaksa’s recent request to find a solution to the problem without further delay, the Sri Lankan government is yet to make a final decision with this regard.
Respecting the dead amid the safety of the living
Renowned sociologist Dr. Harini Amarasooriya, criticized the government’s mandatory cremation policy in a social media post. Following are some of her views on this matter.
“Cultural practices around death are perhaps the most important in any society. Although one may think the focus of after-death rituals and cultural practices are about the after-life of the person who died, they are in reality, more about those who are coping with the death of a loved one. Funeral rites, memorials at different stages -- after 7 days, after 3 months and annually -- help the living to grieve, mourn and remember.
Many of these rituals are of a collective in nature - bringing people together and mobilising support systems. Mental health experts tell us that the inability to mourn the dead can be significantly damaging not just to individual wellbeing but culturally and socially as well. It damages some of the most fundamental ways in which we connect with each other.
"The Sri Lankan state has proved to be supremely insensitive and downright violent when it comes to respecting these cultural practices. Whether ignoring the trauma of families of forced disappearances or forced cremation of people infected with COVID-19"
The Sri Lankan state has proved to be supremely insensitive and downright violent when it comes to respecting these cultural practices. Whether ignoring the trauma of families of forced disappearances -- for whom there can be no closure to their grief, to forced cremation of people infected with COVID-19 -- nothing better symbolizes the callousness and cruelty of the Sri Lankan state more than the arrogance with which it imposes its will on the people trying to cope with their grief and loss.
How else can we understand a government that would consider exporting dead bodies to another country for burial rather than be seen to be changing its stance? How else do we understand a government that removes white cloth tied to the fence of a public cemetery by members of the public in solidarity with those forcibly cremated? These are not the acts of a ‘strong’ government - but rather that of a highly insecure government, unable to tolerate even the mildest form of dissent.
We have become a society that not only does not respect the dead, but has no regard for the living. Can we possibly sink any lower?”