The Human Rights Commission of Sri Lanka (HRCSL) is calling on the health authorities to amend an April 2020 Gazetteto incorporate its recommendations and resolve the vexatious issue of the disposal of bodies in the wake of the COVID 19 pandemic.

Writing to both the Secretary of the Ministry of Health as well as to the Director General of Health Services, the Commissioner in Charge of Investigations and Inquiries, RamaniMuttettuwegama points out that, the HRCSL believes that the governments ruling of mandatory cremation, imposed through the Gazette Number 2170/8 of April 11, 2020 is not ‘a valid restriction of the freedom to manifest religion or belief.’   The Gazette determined the mandatory cremation of anyone who died or was suspected to have died of COVID 19.

Therefore, the HRCSL has suggested five points that should be included in the said Gazette, and thus make it compatible with both the Sri Lanka constitution and the country’s international obligations.

Earlier this year, with the first few victims of the coronavirus being identified, and some succumbing to it, the government of Sri Lanka decided that all those who die of the illness must be cremated using a Colonial-era Ordinance that laid out a Standard Operating Procedure for the disposal of bodies in a pandemic.

The Ordinance probably drawn up during the days of pandemic water-borne diseases forbade burial fearing the contamination of the water table.

In the early days of the COVID 19 pandemic and as things getting worse, the government issued a series of guidelines, often amending them.  There was confusion and many schools of thought on how the virus was spreading and how it could be contained.  One such was that even a corpse was contagious.

Given such beliefs, health authorities introduced the said Gazette, much to the consternation of Muslims whose faith dictates that their dead be buried and not cremated.  In fact, Abrahamic religions, Judaism, Christianity and Islam all require that their dead be buried, though, over the years, for some Christians’ cremation has become an acceptable method of disposing of the dead.  Embalming of the body is strictly forbidden for Jews and Muslims, and their dead are usually buried within twenty four hours.  Both Muslims and Jews adhere to strict customs while preparing the bodies for burial.

Amongst the first to succumb to the coronavirus in Sri Lanka was a Muslim. While community leaders offered to have the body buried in an area where the water table was low (there were concerns at the time that burying a body of a coronavirus victim where the water table is high, could result in the virus spreading), the body had been cremated by the health authoritiesagainst the wishes of the family and the community.  Since then leaders of the community have been making representations to the government to change their decision.

With no such changes forthcoming, at least five fundamental rights petitions were filed before the Supreme Court by members of the Muslim community.

Meanwhile, in April this year, the four UN Special Rapporteursoverseeing freedom of religion or belief, the right of everyone to the enjoyment of the highest attainable standard of physical and mental health, minority issues and the promotion and protection of human rights and fundamental freedoms while countering terrorism, also raised the issue with the government of Sri Lanka.

Around the same time, Prime Minister Mahinda Rajapaksa, responding to appeals by the Muslim community appointed an expert committee to review the matter.  The committee’s recommendations are yet to see the light of day.

Of concern to all families who lost a loved one to the virus was the manner in which the bodies were being disposed of, often forcibly taken from homes, with little or no room to ensure religious rights were observed.  This is true for all, whether they be Muslim, Buddhist, Hindu or Christian.

While it is understood and accepted that health authorities must take all possible precautions to contain the spread of the virus, it is also true that, especially when dealing with deaths, that they should accord some sensitivity and respect to the grieving.

Sri Lanka is yet to change its position on whether or not to permit burials, but over 182 countries do allow those who succumb to the virus to be buried.  In fact a communique issued by the World Health Organisation on “Infection prevention and control for the safe management of a dead body in the context of COVID-19,”   states that according to available information about the symptoms of COVID 19, and the manner it is transmitted which are through droplets and contact, getting infected by a corpse is low.  The communication also states that while there is a common assumption that those who die of communicable diseases are cremated, there is no evidence to support that, and that cremation is generally a cultural matter and dictated by available resources.

Of course, the issue has also taken over political undertones in Sri Lanka, where relations between the Sinhalese and the Muslims are not the best.  For at least a decade now there have been attempts by various factions to demonise Muslims.  The Easter Sunday attack on well-known hotels and Christian places of worship in 2019, by a group of Islamist extremists simply worsened the situation.  Successive governments have done little to allay the tensions; rather, they continue to play to the whims and fancies of hardliners for political gain.

Indeed, recent reports which stated that Cabinet was seeking the opinion of the committee appointed to review the matter of cremations resulted in Sinhala nationalists and some powerful Buddhist priests warning the government that the rules should not be relaxed.

Meanwhile, with the second COVID wave continuing to spread its tentacles to all parts of the country, and claiming the lives of nearly a hundred, dead bodies are piling up at mortuaries. Health regulations require that PCR tests must be done when a person dies, to determine whether or not the victim had caught the virus.  With the increased number of deaths, sometimes there are delays in releasing the test results, which means that even the bodies of those who have not died of the virus cannot be released.

As the communique released by the HRCSL points out ‘The Gazette does not provide for a procedure to be followed to determine whether the deceased has in fact succumbed to COVID-19 prior to mandating cremation of the dead body. The Gazette is also silent as to the interactions the family members may have with the deceased such as for viewing and paying final respects. This has led to the arbitrary application of the restriction and confusion among the public.”

The communique also notes that the bodies of those who succumb to the virus and those who die of other causes are all kept together in the police morgue.

The HRCSL alleges that there have been instances where health officials who attended to a patient who tested positive had not been quarantined and that families of the dead are required to pay between Rupees five thousand to twenty thousand for coffins.

Therefore, in calling for the amendment of Gazette number 2170/8 the HRCSL is recommending that the following be included:

I. Permit burials as well as cremations of bodies of persons who succumb to the Covid-19 virus while adhering to required health guidelines.
II. Mandate ‘PCR testing results to be issued within 24 hours of a person’s death.
III. Create a sanitary system of storing bodies of those who die at home and stop taking them to the police morgue.
IV. Adopt a systematic approach to management of deaths that is humane and transparent. – A transparent process for delegation of authority by the proper authority. – A process for declaring a person’s cause of death – Permitting families to pay their final respects while adhering to required health guidelines.
V. Ensure stakeholder participation when formulating procedures for management of deaths in the context of Covid-19 by engaging the communities that may be affected.

The question now is whether the government will consider the recommendations and make the necessary changes.  Even if it is willing to do so, how will it appease those who have made the issue of burials of COVID victims a political issue?

The full text of the HRCSL communique can be read here:Observations-Recommendations-Disposal-Dead-Bodies-Covid19_compressed


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