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How COVID-19 changes how we are allowed to bury our dead

How COVID-19 changes how we are allowed to bury our dead

The COVID-19 pandemic has affected our lives in almost every way imaginable, including how South Africans of all cultures and religions grieve, honour and bury their dead.

Because of the highly infectious nature of the coronavirus, special measures and guidelines have been put in place regarding funeral practices. Your undertaker will be familiar with these. They can guide you through the process, making sure you minimise the risk of infection and follow the regulations.

COVID-19 protocolsThe National Institute for Communicable Diseases (NICD) says that if a person dies of COVID-19, the remains are considered contagious. This means special precautions must be taken to avoid the spread of the disease, including stipulating that a body may only be kept in a mortuary or at a designated health facility such as an undertaker. Special regulations which detail how the body of someone who dies of COVID-19 should be dealt with were published at the end of May and include the following provisions and requirements:

Death at home

  • An EMS must be called to confirm the death, following which the undertaker may remove the body
  • Remains must be transported in a sealed body bag
  • Clothes and masks of those who were in the home at the time of death must be washed and surfaces disinfected

Viewing and handling the body

  • Anyone handling the body must wear personal protective clothing
  • Although the health department doesn’t recommend it, the body may be washed, but only at a mortuary or undertaker’s premises by those wearing protective clothing, which is to be disposed of afterwards
  • The body may be dressed, again you must wear protective clothing
  • Embalming is not recommended but allowed if safety measures are followed
  • Relatives can view the remains of the body, providing they wear masks and gloves, but they cannot touch the body
  • Remains can only be kept at the mortuary for 3 days

Burials

  • Cremation is preferred, but burials are allowed
  • Burials and funeral services must be kept short – no longer than 2 hours
  • Services should be attended only by close relatives, with no more than 50 attendees in total
  • Masks must be worn and social distancing rules followed
  • Anyone placing the body into a grave should wear gloves and wash these afterwards or dispose of them
  • Travel between provinces to attend funerals is permitted in level 3 lockdown, but an affidavit is required

Tradition and regulationsThe guidelines are designed to limit risk and avoid contagion. Unfortunately, the regulations might be at odds with certain elements of the traditional religious and cultural practices of many South Africans. For example, bodies must be kept in a mortuary or other health facility and cannot be kept at home, as is customary in certain cultures and traditions.

Christian funeralsLiturgical funerals in a church feature scripture readings and sermon, eulogy, congregational singing and public prayer. With COVID-19 this format may be carried out, subject to regulations for religious gatherings, which include:

  • Wearing personal protective equipment such as facemasks
  • Maintaining a social distance of one and a half metres
  • Being screened for COVID-19 symptoms before entering a place of worship

Many people will not be able to attend the funeral service of a relative or a friend, due to COVID-19 restrictions on the number of people that can attend funerals. Services are limited to 50 people, including church officials and funeral home staff, making them more private affairs.

No refreshments may be served after the funeral, as is customary at a funeral reception after Christian funerals.

Also not permitted is the Catholic vigil, or wake, often held at a Catholic church, a funeral home or family home, with the deceased’s body or cremated remains present.

Muslim funeralsThe Muslim Judicial Council (MJC) has detailed guidelines for janaa’iz (funerals) during the COVID-19 lockdown on their website, and updates these as national regulations are updated.

The protocols, which include limiting numbers at the funeral to 20 and ensuring the appropriate use of personal protective equipment, recognise that it is imperative for anyone actively involved in the burial process to adhere to the government guidelines.

Jewish funeralsA Jewish funeral must take place within 24 hours of the person dying, although at times there are exceptions to this rule. Traditionally, only burial is allowed. Government regulations must be followed for Jewish funerals, such as wearing personal protective equipment and not touching the body. The local rabbi can assist with any queries on burials and preparation of the body when a person dies from or is suspected of being infected with COVID-19.

Safe and soundAll over the world, funeral homes are working to offer services that honour the dead, help families mourn, and incorporate their cultural and religious traditions as best they can while limiting the risk of infection.

These are very difficult and uncertain days. To lose a loved one at this time is especially hard. With the support of families and friends, we can stay safe and avoid being infected if we follow the required protocols and regulations.