Coronavirus is changing the death rituals too

ST Staff
Saturday, 23 May 2020

As the novel virus affects societies across the country, growing fatalities and social distancing are toppling sacred rituals of funerals are changing

Over the months, the space reserved for an obituary in almost all newspapers is not enough to mention the victims of coronavirus as there is a continuous rise in deaths due to the novel COVID-19.

As the death speed climbs from COVID-19, what happens to the bodies of those who have died has now become a talking point. People who have lost dear ones will have to cope with the extra trauma of not being able to give them a proper ‘goodbye’ as funerals have changed intensely.


Funeral services at almost all temples, churches, mosques and synagogues have been suspended till further notice to curtail the spread of coronavirus. Also, ancient rituals to honour the dead and comfort the grieving have been cut short or abandoned.

As the novel virus affects societies across the country, growing fatalities and social distancing are toppling monuments and sacred rituals around death and dying.

The victims are dying in isolation and left to be buried or cremated away from grief-stricken families. In India, over 3,700 coronavirus deaths have been reported, and the government has already imposed a guideline for disposal of dead bodies.

Gone are the big, public funerals that are a key part of mourning for adherents of many faiths.

Funerals are now limited to 20 people. New guidelines issued by the central government has also ban bathing or embalming the corpse of a COVID-19 victim and prohibit relatives from kissing or hugging the body to avoid any risk of transmitting the infection. As the funeral industry fights to keep up with the total volume of coronavirus deaths, funerals are being postponed, especially in hotspot regions around the country.


 River Ganga in India is considered as a holy river, and many people from the Hindu community believe that being cremated next to the river or ashes submerged in its waters, confirms salvation.

The Ganga in Varanasi, Uttar Pradesh is always lined with funeral pyres, but now the area is secluded amid the lockdown; as a result, the water in river Ganga is so fresh that now it is declared as ‘fit to drink’. On the other side, there is even a shortage of priests to perform the last rituals because no priests want to move out from home amid the lockdown.

Families are unable to transport the bodies or ashes and if reports are believed to be true ashes are piling up in crematoriums.

On the other side, Muslims continue to bury their dead. The government has allowed the Muslim community to perform their rituals. The rituals of washing the dead body can be performed but with the necessary protective measures. Also, according to the guidelines, the grave of the person should be dug eight feet instead of six.



The USA is one of the worst-hit countries in the world due to the novel coronavirus where close to a lakh have died. Images have surfaced of coffins being buried in a mass grave in the New York City. Some reports state that many companies have created mobile applications to help people plan funerals, store legal documents of the deceased and share messages.

Also read: Coronavirus impact: Mass graves spotted at New York City's Hart Land


In Pakistan, Punjab province issued guidelines requiring those performing the ritual Islamic washing of bodies to wear suitable protective gear. A clerical council in the region has asked people to practice social distancing as they undertake communal prayers to honour the one who passed away. Pakistan has over 1,100 deaths reported.


Over 4,200 people have lost lives due to coronavirus in Turkey. Only those physically involved in the burial are allowed at the pre-burial body washing ritual, and only the closest relatives can attend the funeral, with the imam (prayer leader of a mosque) praying from a safe distance away through a mask.


Not being able to bid final adieu has been known as a cause of ‘complicated grief’ among mourning relatives. The pandemic is accelerating in Brazil with over two lakh coronavirus cases and 14,000 deaths, but President Jair Bolsonaro has played down the risks of the infection and disapproved state governments’ isolation instructions. In Brazil, experts urge people to edge funerals to ten attendees. They specify that grievers must remain about six feet apart.


Though the death rate in the country is low, Israel is leaving no stone unturned to practice social distancing. Sheba Medical Centre in Israel built a glass stand in which to place the body so families may get a last sight. Families stand on the opposite side of a wall and peer through a window to see the dead. Israel has reported over 279 deaths.


The outbreak is changing how we say goodbye to loved ones. Coronavirus has created havoc in Italy where around 2.3 lakh are infected, and over 32,000 have lost their lives. Many victims of the coronavirus are dying in hospital isolation. Family visits are banned because the risk of contagion is too high; thus, the corpses are sealed away. A funeral company is using video links to allow isolated families to watch a priest bless the late. Burying personal items is now considered illegal here.


Last but not least, in Wuhan, families under lockdown hadn’t been able to collect the cremated ashes of their loved ones from the past two months. To prevent large crowds, authorities here require relatives to book a time slot to pick up their loved ones’ ashes and bury.


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