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Sri Lanka: Respect burial rights & stop mandatory cremations of COVID-19 victims – Petition by women

We, the undersigned women write to you in solidarity and on behalf of our Muslim sisters and brothers in this time of uncertainty and loss of life. We write this as a matter of urgency in light of the rising death toll of persons succumbing to COVID-19, and those suspected to have died due to the disease.

The COVID-19 virus does not affect us all equally. The measures taken and decisions made to curb its spread has brought our existing inequalities into sharp focus. One group that has been disproportionately, unjustly and needlessly impacted are our Muslim sisters and brothers. They have been forced to live in the shadows of the pandemic, not only in fear of being infected with the virus and racial profiling, but also in fear of being denied their last rites if they succumb to this disease.

As you are no doubt aware, the practice of cremation goes against the fundamental teachings of Islam. Islam prohibits cremation as it is believed to be a desecration of the deceased; the soul and body remain connected after death. We have heard from our Muslim sisters and brothers of how their elderly and sick are living in fear. They fear that even if they succumb to another illness, they would be denied last rites in accordance with their religious beliefs and cultural practices.

We have been told how persons found positive of COVID-19 are taken away and isolated from their families. The family is allowed little or no contact with the patient thereafter. Families that cannot afford luxury private quarantine facilities, are taken to remote quarantine centers located far away from their loved ones. Most of the affected are from economically vulnerable families. Hence, in addition to the financial pressures they are facing, Muslim families whose loved ones succumb to COVID-19 are now forced bear the additional hardship of purchasing coffins costing thousands of rupees. There is no practice of purchasing coffins in the Muslim community as bodies are wrapped in cloth and buried.
We should not have to describe the additional mental pain and anguish caused to families grieving their dead as a result of imposing a practice that is fundamentally against Muslim religious beliefs, at a time when they are not even able to pay respects to the body, in keeping with health guidelines.

There is no necessity to inflict this pain on the Muslim community of Sri Lanka.  In countries with a high death toll such as Italy, or countries with a small landmass such as the Maldives, the question of burial versus cremation has not even arisen. They have continued to dispose of their dead as they would for any other illness, with additional special precautions. The WHO has provided clear guidelines on how burials should be carried out. It states that ‘the dignity of the dead, their cultural and religious traditions, and their families should be respected and protected’ throughout the process of the final rites.
Further, the original Sri Lankan Health Ministry guidelines on the disposal of COVID-19 deceased had clear instructions on how to carry out burials, stating safety measures which would mitigate any groundwater contamination.

It is shocking and disheartening to note that it was only after the initial cremation was ordered and carried out in a haphazard manner that local health guidelines were amended, and cremation made mandatory. We understand that during a pandemic urgent decisions need to be made to contain the disease. However, there is scientific evidence to indicate that the SARS-CoV-2 virus (Coronavirus) residing within a dead body is incapable of causing an infection and transmitting the disease, and also poses little to no risks to groundwater. These scientific findings should have been considered before the current regulations were put in place.

Buddhism teaches us that how the remains are treated is of no direct consequences to the well-being of the departed, however this does not mean that we can act disrespectfully towards the bodily remains of those who had showered their love on us. We know the pain of the living when our loved ones depart, thus, it is the responsibility of the living to radiate metta to ease their pain. Religious customs and final rites must be treated with humanity and mutual respect, and certain communities should not be made to bear an additional burden in the interest of public health.

We urge our women parliamentarians, to both expedite the Committee decision on the question of burial, and also to use your presence in Parliament, irrespective of political allegiances, to question the need for mandatory cremation.  We write this with the hope that you will put an end to the unnecessary suffering and fear being imposed on our Muslim sisters and brothers.

Note: Although we initially strategically only wanted women to sign, for this petition to open a dialogue between women and women representatives, men who support this issue have also signed on.

PDF with names of the signatories : Respect burial rights & stop mandatory cremations of COVID-19 victims – 10 Nov. 2020


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