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COVID-19 Outbreak Forces Muslims to Alter Rituals for Grieving

Jesmin Papri and Froilan Gallardo
Dhaka and Marawi, Philippines
2020-04-03
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Family members of a COVID-19 victim mourn during a funeral in Jakarta, March 31, 2020.
Family members of a COVID-19 victim mourn during a funeral in Jakarta, March 31, 2020.
AFP

Nothing was usual in the sudden death of Mohamad Pannu Mia, a 55-year-old Bangladeshi rickshaw puller.

After Md Parvez rushed his father to a hospital in Dhaka on the night of March 30, he could only stand in the background, helpless, as Mia left this world and was laid to rest.

“Hospital authorities didn’t hand over my father’s body to us, suspecting that he might have died due to the coronavirus,” Parvez, a 21-year-old welder, told BenarNews by telephone from his home in the Nawabganj area of Dhaka, where he was in quarantine.

Medical workers offered funeral prayers for his father at the hospital, but only five or six people were inside the room, he said.

“Those who participated in Namaz-e-Janaza wore personal protective equipment and masks. Water mixed with bleach was sprayed on his body before wrapping up the body with white cloth. Then the body was put in a box,” Parvez said.

The next day, an ambulance took Mia’s body to a graveyard. Parvez was allowed to follow in a separate ambulance.

No one else in his family was permitted to go.

“My father has two more daughters. But they couldn’t see my father’s face for the last time. My mother even couldn’t say her final words toward her husband. I couldn’t even give the last respect that my father deserved. It’s my failure too,” Parvez said.

From Bangladesh to the Philippines, as COVID-19 deaths climb into the double and triple digits, Muslims find themselves having to forego the rituals that help them bid farewell to their departed ones, adding suffering to the shock, grief and stigma of falling prey to the deadly virus.

The outbreak has forced Muslims to change their religious rites, according to Bin Laden Aga Khan Sharief, a Muslim elder in Marawi, Philippines.

“The dead can no longer be given a bath or a change of clothes,” he told BenarNews. “In Islam, it is obligatory to thoroughly wash or clean the cadaver. Only the Shaheed, or those who die in fighting, are exempted.”

‘Double misery’

In the Bangladeshi capital, officials from the hospital later called Parvez to say that his father had tested negative for coronavirus, but died of pneumonia.

Experts in infectious disease at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in the United States list pneumonia as a complication of severe coronavirus.

The test results did not convince his neighbors, Parvez said.

“Socially, we are facing a kind of discomfort,” he said. “We’re mentally down due to the demise of my father, while we don’t have adequate food at home – double misery.”

Islamic Foundation Director-General Anis Mahmud said that Muslims who succumb to COVID-19 should receive a ritual dry washing, or Tayemmum, to comply with Muslim law, before being sprayed with bleach to satisfy health regulations.

“Directives have been given to follow this system after consultation with learned Islamic scholars,” he told BenarNews.

Compromise

In Malaysia, another Muslim-majority country, guidelines released in late March by the Ministry of Health call for bodies of all confirmed and suspected COVID-19 patients to be wrapped in white linen and placed in two body bags by medical personnel wearing N95 masks, face shields, gloves and protective aprons.

The Islamic procedure of washing the body can be replaced by tayammum, a symbolic cleansing using purified sand or dust, over the outermost body bag, it said.

“Relatives are strictly forbidden to handle the body at any circumstances,” it said, adding that only one relative would be allowed to view the body for identification.

“The normal ritual would need the body handler to cleanse the body using water before wrapping the body in white cloth. The handler would have to touch the body to make sure that it is clean enough before [continuing] to other stages and last preparation for the burial,” Zulkifli Mohamad Al-Bakri, the Malaysian minister in charge of Islamic Affairs, said earlier in the month.

Aleem Saad Amate, president of the United Imams of the Philippines, said Muslims had learned to compromise with the new protocols.

The family of a patient who died of COVID-19 at the Northern Mindanao Medical Center on March 13 had agreed not to follow strict Islamic traditions during the burial, but they did not agree to recommendations from the World Health Organization that the remains be cremated. Instead, the family allowed health officials to place the body in a bag before it was buried.

“Cremation is considered Haram by Muslims but placing the body in a body bag was a compromise,” Amate said. He said the family was lucky that doctors at the hospital understood and respected their Islamic burial traditions.

Su-ngai Kolok Hospital officials bury a COVID-19 victim at the Sarayo cemetery in Narathiwat province, southern Thailand, March 27, 2020. [Matahari Ismail/BenarNews]
Su-ngai Kolok Hospital officials bury a COVID-19 victim at the Sarayo cemetery in Narathiwat province, southern Thailand, March 27, 2020. [Matahari Ismail/BenarNews]

Bathed but not undressed

In neighboring Indonesia, the Indonesian Ulema Council (MUI), the nation’s top religious authority, said the body of a COVID-19 victim must be bathed but need not be undressed.

It should then be wrapped in a shroud, put in a waterproof body bag, then an air-tight casket, and buried without being removed from the casket, the council said.

Meanwhile the MUI urged the public not to refuse burial of people who had died of coronavirus near their neighborhoods, following reports that some communities tried to block funerals of COVID-19 victims.

“The public must not refuse the funeral of coronavirus victims or outbreaks of any disease because the funeral process is handled by highly professional medical officers, not by the general public,” said Anton Tabah, chairman of the MUI Legal Commission.

On Sunday, some residents in Gowa Regency, South Sulawesi, protested against the burial of a COVID-19 patient and chased away an ambulance carrying the body. It was later buried at another location.

And in Thailand, the Sheikhul Islam office announced that Thai Muslims nationwide must follow temporary burial protocols until further notice.

“In the case of COVID-19 death, relatives and friends are not allowed to touch or kiss the body to prevent germs from spreading. The body must be treated according to medical advice, applying powder instead of bathing,” the Sheikhul Islam said in a statement.

Prayers and burial preparations must take place at the hospital, and the body should be buried in an air-tight pouch as soon as possible, it said.

At least five Muslims in Thailand’s Deep South have died from COVID-19, according to authorities. Hospital officials have buried the dead, barring relatives from mourning at graveyards.

Amin Taleh, a 52-year-old small businessman in Yala province, said his family feared that his uncle, who was severely ill with suspected COVID-19, might soon succumb to the highly contagious virus.

“The family needs to accept the reality. Muslims must accept the destiny,” he told BenarNews.

Noah Lee in Kuala Lumpur, Ronna Nirmala in Jakarta and Mariyam Ahmad in Pattani, Thailand, contributed to this report.

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