Inside the forcible cremation of COVID victims in Sri Lanka



In the unprecedented COVID pandemic, everybody has sacrificed something or the other, millions have lost their livelihood, millions have gone bankrupt and thousands have lost their loved ones. But is sacrificing the last opportunity to pay proper funeral rites to one’s loved ones according to one’s religious belief important? This is the sacrifice that the Sri Lankan government is asking from their minority citizens; forcible cremation instead of burial.

But why is the country’s government not letting burial of COVID victims when more than 190 countries are; and even the World Health Organisation allows burial? Isn’t it right of the people to complete the last offices of their lost loved ones according to their religious belief?

Cremation of COVID victims

Sri Lanka is a pre-dominant Buddhist country; more than 70% of the country’s population follows Theravada Buddhism. The other minority religions in the country are Hindu, Muslims, Roman Catholics and Christians. According to religious beliefs, most of the Buddhist followers belief in the cremation of the deceased body.

When the COVID pandemic hit the country, the government ordered to cremate the body of patients departed due to the coronavirus infection; irrespective of the religion. Cremation of the deceased’s body is strictly forbidden by some religions, like Islam, Christianity and Sinhala Buddhists residing in Sri Lanka.

On 31st March the first Muslim died due to COVID-19 in the country; the family of the deceased was forced to sign an official paper, giving the authority the right to cremate the body. Till now, more than 180 people have lost their lives to this infection in Sri Lank; dozens of the victims belonged to the community whose religion doesn’t allow cremation.

What the government have to say regarding the cremation?

According to the government’s chief epidemiologist, Dr Sugath Samaraweera; burying the body would contaminate the drinking water; therefore all the infected bodies along with those who are suspected to have died by COVID, should be cremated. He says, “The WHO offers guidelines for the whole world. It is our responsibility to adopt or customise those guidelines suitable to our country”.

But, the guidelines issued by the World Health Organisations says, “COVID victims can be buried and cremated”. Bodies of the deceased COVID victims are being buried in almost every country. In the guidelines WHO didn’t share any concern regarding contamination of the groundwater.

According to Professor Malik Peiris, an eminent Virologist, “Covid-19 is not a waterborne disease. And I haven’t seen any evidence to suggest it spreads through dead bodies. A virus can only multiply in a living cell. Once a person dies, the ability of the viruses to multiply decreases.”

Prof Malik says, since the bodies of the deceased patients are wrapped with impermeable material, it is almost impossible for the virus to spread out unless it is buried right into the running water.

The outraging protest

The forced cremation had outraged anger amongst the minority community. A few people have been protesting against this since the start, but the sparked flamed into a fire after the cremation of a 20-day old Muslim baby after being tested positive for COVID.

Mohamed Fahim and Fathima Shafan’s baby boy, Shaykh was just a few days old, when his parents noticed that the baby was having trouble in breathing. They admitted the kid in The Lady Ridgeway, Colombo’s best children’s hospital on 7th December. After running an antigen test the baby tested positive for COVID, which shocked his parents as both of them tested negetive.

The baby boy was not able to survive another day and passed away. The parents were asked to sign a document giving the right to the authority to cremate the child’s body. Despite Mr Fahim’s refusal, because according to Islam, cremation is considered to be a form of mutilation, the body was cremated. The next day, the parents were handed over the ashes (as done after cremation).

The case of baby Shaykh is not alone, many in Sri Lanka have lost their loved ones, and were not able to pay last offices, as by their religion. Offline and online protest has raged against the government.

Burial rights

The cremation case was taken to the Supreme Court but was discarded soon. In protest, people gathered outside the crematorium and white ribbons on the gate, but by morning the ribbons were taken out by the authorities.

“The government doesn’t seem to be responding to anything based on science. They don’t seem to take into consideration the advice of virologists or microbiologists or epidemiologists. This is racist agenda of a few in the technical committee”; says Hilmy Ahmed, vice-president Muslim Council of Sri Lanka.

On the other hand, Keheliya Rambukwella, cabinet minster says, “Everybody has to make some kind of sacrifices during this Covid pandemic. I understand this is a very sensitive issue. Even my Muslim friends are calling me and asking me to help them. But as a government, we have to take the decisions based on science for the sake of all concerned”.


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