COLOMBO: The Sri Lankan government is on the horns of a dilemma over whether it should allow Muslims to bury (as per their religious beliefs) those of them who had died of COVID-19, or they should be required to submit to cremation.

The Health Minister has appointed a committee of scientists to study the matter and advice, given the notion that public health will be in grave danger if bodies of COVID-19 victims are allowed to be buried.

However, the final decision will have to be a political one as well, because the issue has acquired a religio-political dimension with far-reaching consequences.

Pressures on the government on this issue have arisen from both sides of the communal divide. On the one hand, the Chief Sangha Nayake of the Sri Lanka Ramannaya Nikaya, Ven.Dr.Omalpe Sobitha Thera, has said that there should be one law in the country in this matter and that should be stated by the Health Ministry. The government should not consider religion, nationality or any other status in this regard, he added.

On the other hand, the Muslims consider it sinful to cremate their dead as cremation violates the body which ought to be respected whether it is alive or dead. The destruction of bones in cremation is tantamount to killing, they say. Muslims, like Christians, believe in the resurrection of the physical body, and such, cremation is prohibited.

In Sri Lanka, Muslims also see the insistence for cremation now as arising from an alleged anti-Muslim agenda of the ruling party.

The issue became international when the UN Resident Coordinator Hanaa Singer wrote to the Sri Lankan Prime Minister expressing hope that the existing policy on mandatory cremations will be revised so as to allow the safe and dignified burial of COVID-19 victims.

“The negative consequences of not allowing burials seem to outweigh any potential epidemiological benefit. Considering the evidenced-based guidance of the World Health Organization, as well as the commitments of the Government of Sri Lanka to respect and uphold the rights of all communities, I therefore express my hope that the existing policy be revised so as to allow the safe and dignified burial of COVID-19 victims,” Singer said.

Her intervention indicated that the issue might be take up at the UN Human Rights Council by Western nations and human rights groups.

Advocates of burial also quote a WHO statement in March, which said that people who have died from COVID-19 can either be buried or cremated. “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,” WHO said.

It further said that, to date, there is no evidence of persons having become infected from exposure to the bodies of persons who died from COVID-19. The dignity of the dead, their cultural and religious traditions, should be respected and protected throughout, it added. Advocates of burial also pointed out that all countries except China and Sri Lanka allow burial of COVID dead.

However, writing in Sri Lankan Scientist on April 7, 2020, Prof. Meththika Vithanage, Director, Ecosphere Resilience Research Centre, Faculty of Applied Sciences, University of Sri Jayewardenepura, said that cemeteries are among the chief anthropogenic sources of pollution and contamination of groundwater in urban areas.

“In the process of decomposition of a human body, 0.4-0.6 liters of leachate is produced per 1 kg of body weight, which may contain pathogenic bacteria and viruses that may contaminate the groundwater. Burial causes soil contamination and then leads to groundwater pollution.”

“In the case of viruses, recent studies indicate that viruses may transport in soil with rainfall infiltration and extends specifically to drinking water from an untreated groundwater source. Several scientific publications report virus occurrence rates of about 30 percent of groundwater.”

“In Sri Lanka, we experience high rainfall, low groundwater table, highly porous subsurface soil, and fractured rocks compared to most temperate countries in the world, which may lead the transport of biological and chemical compounds from dead bodies. WHO recommendation guidelines suit temperate countries mainly, not tropical high-temperature high rainfall countries where we experience high decomposition rates and highly variable water table.”

“This is where the local hydro-geological knowledge is essential to protect groundwater as well as forthcoming infection occurrence. Given the vulnerability of our groundwater aquifers, and lack of understanding about the behavior of COVID-19 virus, there can be a risk from dead bodies, septic waste or sanitary waste. Hence, it is advisable to have careful measures in destroying the infected dead bodies, septic, and sanitary waste in proper conditions without provisioning chances for any future disease outbreak,” Dr.Vithanage said.

Perhaps the Sri Lankan government create new cemeteries with safeguards against environmental pollution. The Minister of Law Ali Sabri has told the Tamil daily Virakesari that government could look for land for burials where the water table is low. According to him there are places in Mannar district in North Western Lanka where the water table is as low as 70 ft.

Pollution from cemeteries has been noticed in the UK and rules have been made to minimize it. According to Groundsure there are specific restrictions about where a cemetery can be located. A new burial site, or an extension to an existing cemetery, cannot be located less than 250m from any well, borehole or spring used to supply water for human consumption or food production.

Groundsure admits that there are few modern studies on the topic, particularly in the UK. So it’s hard to assess the real-world impact of cemeteries on groundwater. However, one such study was undertaken at a cemetery in the West Midlands, located on the second-most important drinking water aquifer in England, with graves dug up to two metres below ground level and the groundwater levels generally five metres below the surface. The results of the study showed “highly contaminated” levels of pathogenic bacteria.

Meanwhile, cremation is catching up in the West to avoid environmental pollution and due to pressure on space. Although Christians believe in resurrection that enjoins burial, and burial is preferred by the churches, the churches have been allowing cremation under some conditions.

The Vatican Radio reported that on August 16, 2016, the Offices of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith had stated that: “ The Church raises no doctrinal objections to this practice (of cremation), since cremation of the deceased’s body does not affect his or her soul, nor does it prevent God, in his omnipotence, from raising up the deceased body to new life. Thus cremation, in and of itself, objectively negates neither the Christian doctrine of the soul’s immortality nor that of the resurrection of the body.”

In the US and UK cremations began in the 1870s. By 2009, 36.84% of the dead in the US were cremated annually.