Christians not being allowed burials, forced to cremate in Mumbai?

No Christian cemeteries have been listed for burial of Covid-19 victims

Indian Christians

Even as the coronavirus infection continues to ravage families and snatch away people from their loved ones, the far worse thing coming to the fore is that the dead are not being given a dignified funeral even in such times. Families have had to suffer the anguish at the hands of the states which are proving to be increasingly apathetic to the deceased.

Different communities have different rituals for last rites and all they wish is to bid a respectable goodbye to those gone. However, states have been increasingly pushing for the cremation of Covid-19 victims, notwithstanding the rituals to be followed by people of different religions, citing the threat of virus transmission.

On Sunday night, the family of a 61-year-old Christian woman from Mahim who had died of Covid-19, was forced to cremate her body because the cemetery refused to allow her burial. After she passed, her family tried everything they could, to get directions from the hospital, the municipal corporation and the police to allow her to be buried. However, her body was cremated on Sunday night, the Hindustan Times reported.

Forced to abandon funeral customs

Noah Christian, a relative of the Covid-19 victim said, “According to the Bible, it is said that we are born out of dust and we go back to dust. When we aren’t given an option to bury the body, it hurts our sentiments. We were literally left with no option but to let the body be put in electric crematorium along with the coffin.”

Activist Cyril Dara too said that he had heard of three other victims who succumbed to the infection in the last week and had to be cremated. “When there are provisions for burial of other communities, why not for our community members? In countries like USA, Italy, Iran and many other countries, respectful burial is been given,” said Dara.

Cemeteries earmarked for other communities

The Brihanmumbai Municipal Corporation (BMC) has identified 20 Muslim cemeteries where Covid-19 victims may be buried, no Christian cemeteries have been listed.

Last month, the BMC allowed burials within city limits provided the ground was large enough to ensure that there was no threat of transmission of Covid-19. A senior official of the BMC told HT, “When we were discussing the issue, we had called representatives of Christian and Parsi communities. They had assured us that they will look into the practice on a case to case basis. If there is a demand, we can provide for a burial space for Christians.”

Explaining why the 20 cemeteries for Muslims had been earmarked he said, “Among Muslims, there are lot of sects and each of them have different burial grounds. A demand had come in from them to allot space in cemeteries which were large,” adding that the Christian community was “scattered” and that there wasn’t a particular area that was allotted.

Leaving matter to the state, Father Nigel Barett, spokesperson of the Archdiocese of Bombay, which has around five lakh members, said, “When it comes to burials [of Covid-19 victims], the respective family needs to take permission from BMC, and they will allot a space for burials to take place. We are not the authority here to take a call on this.”

What the World Health Organization says

It is surprising that the states are not allowing for burial citing fear of contamination even now when the World Health Organization (WHO) has cleared the confusion on the matter a long time ago.

In an interim guidance issued on March 24 regarding ‘Infection Prevention and Control for the safe management of a dead body in the context of Covid-19’, the WHO stated, “Except in cases of hemorrhagic fevers (such as Ebola, Marburg) and cholera, dead bodies are generally not infectious. Only the lungs of patients with pandemic influenza, if handled improperly during an autopsy, can be infectious. Otherwise, cadavers do not transmit disease. It is a common myth that persons who have died of a communicable disease should be cremated, but this is not true. Cremation is a matter of cultural choice and available resources.”

Issuing certain guidelines regarding national and local requirements of the handling and disposition of the remains, it clearly states, “People who have died from Covid-19 can be buried or cremated.”

Paucity of land

Sabrang India’s previous report on the matter had revealed an issue of larger concern – the shortage of grave sites. Dolphy D’souza, the spokesperson of the Bombay Catholic Sabha had said, “Land is very limited in cities like Mumbai and bodies take a long time to decompose, leading to a shortage of grave sites. There is a need for more burial grounds to be made available, or at least the establishment of composite funeral sites.”

However, he says that though a burial is a deeply religious matter, people have to change mindsets in face of a crisis when they have no choice. In Singapore, Christians have taken to cremations due to a paucity of land and the ashes of the deceased are stored in urns inside crypts. Explaining the same, D’souza said, “t is all about changing mindsets. Already Australia has cremations. When you are faced with circumstances where you don’t have a choice, what can you do? Even in Mumbai, in many parishes shroud burial is being encouraged as opposed to coffin burials. Teak coffins, for example, take an especially long time to allow the body to decompose, whereas shroud burials expedite the decomposition process, making the grave reusable after some time. There is also a push to encourage sharing of graveyards between churches like we do in Kalina and Vakola.”

While this is a real issue and needs more deliberation from the BMC and the Church so that adequate land for funeral sites is provided, the dismissal of allowing the Christian community the burial of a deceased according to their customs because of the fear of panic, is unacceptable. It is highly unscientific and depicts the highhandedness of the state, especially in such a grievous matter.


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