Srinagar, August 5: When an elderly person died due to coronavirus after being admitted in a hospital for 15 days in North Kashmir's Baramulla district, a grave was dug at his ancestral graveyard and kept ready for his burial. After the family waited for hours at the graveyard, they were told by some officials to bury him at another place instead of their ancestral graveyard.
"At 8 pm that day, we had to dig another grave in our orchard, which is one kilometre away from our graveyard. When we (a few relatives) reached there, some people also opposed his burial there. We then convinced them and were allowed to bury him in the orchard," his nephew told The Logical Indian.
"We had our orchard and buried him there. Does it mean that if we had no land available he could have been thrown into the river? The grave we had dug in the graveyard is still open," he said in a broken voice. He said his uncle died at 8 in the morning and was buried at 11:30 pm on that fateful day.
"He was like us then why he can't be buried like others in the graveyard. Why are Ulemas (Islamic preachers) silent on this issue," he asked.
His family has a regret that he was not allowed to be buried in his own graveyard like others. The deceased had an adopted son who died a few years ago. "A night before the COVID-19 patient expired, one of our relatives saw him in a dream requesting that he should be buried next to his adopted son. But that could not happen," he regretted.
This is not an isolated case. There are many cases where locals have opposed the burial of COVID victims in their community graveyards in Kashmir, which is the only Muslim-dominated region in India.
Jammu and Kashmir, which was converted into Union Territory by the Government of India in August last year, has reported 22,955 positive cases and 428 deaths due to COVID till August 5. The majority are from the Kashmir region.
A Srinagar lady who died of coronavirus was denied burial at the place of her ancestral graveyard. "We were told that she should not be buried here. After making us wait for a few hours, some respectable people intervened. Later, we were allowed to bury her in one of the corners of the graveyard. This shows the social stigma attached to such patients," one of her family members said.
The problem has been more complicated for non-locals who died of COVID-19 in Jammu and Kashmir.
For instance, when a 50-year-old mason from West Bengal died in Kishtwar area of Jammu region, the locals opposed his burial. The administration then buried him at an isolated place on the government land. Officials used JCB to dig the grave.
Similarly, a non-local, who was a tailor by profession died in Srinagar, Kashmir. Then a doctor posted on social media asking people to come forward to do his last rites. A non-government organization (NGO) came forward to bury the deceased at a graveyard, which has been purchased by the NGO.
When the grave was kept ready for the dead body, some locals objected, saying it would spread infection. The NGO had to face a tough time in convincing them to allow the burial.
A group of volunteers also helped the NGO to do last rites.
"We (volunteers) reached the graveyard at around 9:30 pm. Our volunteers had to face tough times from locals who opposed the burial of the non-local tailor," says Sajad Ahmad Khan, 37, who runs a local grocery store.
He, along with a team of 20 youths, has voluntarily arranged over 25 burials of COVID victims in Kashmir.
"Almost everywhere, people are raising objections and do not want COVID victims to be buried in their graveyard. There is no fault of these people who died of coronavirus, still, people don't want to give them a decent burial," he said.
Khan provides all the equipment to his team (volunteers) like personal protection equipment (PPE) kits, sanitisers and other things.
"I want this stigma to end here," he says. He said in some cases some families were also reluctant to bury their family members.
"I remember one evening when I saw relatives of a COVID victim were wearing PPE, sitting in their vehicles but not going closer to the coffin in Srinagar. If the first relation is in quarantine then why the second relation is not coming forward for last rites," he asked.
Khan started this noble service and posted on social media that he can be contacted if any family wants the burial of a COVID victim. "We have over 20 people in our team who have been divided into five groups with four persons in each group. After burying a dead body, one group goes into quarantine for 14 days," he said.
The World Health Organisation has also issued guidelines for managing bodies of those who die of COVID-19 saying, "cadavers(a corpse) do not transmit disease". The Indian Health Ministry guidelines state that "there is unlikely to be an increased risk of COVID infection from a dead body to health workers or family members who follow standard precautions while handling body".
Influenza expert in Kashmir Dr Nisar ul Hassan says many COVID-19 deaths go "unreported" in Kashmir because of the social stigma.
"Social stigma makes people hide their illness and keep them away from seeking health care. People fear if they die of COVID-19, they will not get a decent burial," Dr Hassan said who is the president of one of the factions of Doctors Association of Kashmir.
He said there is no evidence of a person being infected from the exposure to corpses who were COVID victims.
"The main driver of transmission of COVID-19 is through respiratory droplets generated when an infected person coughs or sneezes. There is no chance of spread of infection from a dead person. The dead person won't cough or sneeze," said Dr Hassan, who is an Associate Professor at the Government Medical College (GMC) Srinagar.
Dr Suhail Nayak, who is President of other faction of Doctors Association Kashmir, says any person who dies in a pandemic is a "martyr" and needs dignified protocol based burial and funeral.
"Respect dead bodies and don't stigmatize their families which is a big sin," he says adding there is no evidence that anyone has contacted the virus from the exposure to dead bodies of COVID-19 patients.
He says during these tough times it was everyone's responsibility to maintain the dignity of the dead. "Their families should be respected, not stigmatized," Dr Naik added.
Kashmir's Grand Mufti (Islamic jurist) Mufti Nasir-ul-Islam said disallowing burial of COVID-19 victims is un-Islamic. "Those who disallow burial of COVID-19 victims should remember they too can die because of this deadly infection," he said.
People have to take preventive measures to bury a dead body. "But does Islam say we should not allow the burial of these people? No. Doing such acts is un-Islamic," he added.