Death has always been an intensely emotional and personal event for family, relatives and friends. From one last farewell to ones beloved, to various religious rituals, death means many things to many people. The pain of losing a loved one is hard. Most people come to terms with their grief by seeing the remains of their loved one, one last time. Religious rituals and death rites give a sense of healing and closure to relatives. Death rituals mean an affirmation of one’s faith. They represent mankind’s hope for a better plane of existence for the soul of the departed.
The pandemic has decisively changed the way we cope with the death of a loved one from Covid-19. Fear of Covid-19 spreading through contact with dead bodies is overpowering. Exercising abundant caution, Indian protocols are among the most stringent in the world. As per practices in our country, dead bodies are disinfected by designated workers. They are then wrapped in body bags and then sent to crematoriums in special vehicles. Relatives are not allowed to view the body. Many of the usual rituals can no longer be done in view of Covid-19 restrictions. The last rites are done with the bare minimum relatives in attendance in full PPE gear.
Are Indian rules too strict and impersonal? The recommendations of the Centers for Disease Control (CDC), the apex authority for framing guidelines on infectious diseases in the USA is a picture in contrast. The CDC is of the opinion that the risk of acquiring infection from a dead body is extremely low. The CDC allows the family to prepare the dead body for burial or cremation wearing gloves. They also permit the family to transport and bury the body as per their wishes. The family can also view the body, but from a distance of at least 1 meter.
Is America being too liberal in handling of Covid-19 dead bodies? To answer that we need to carefully evaluate the scientific evidence for Covid infection transmission from dead bodies. Till date there is no hard evidence that Covid-19 can be transmitted by contact with dead bodies. The few studies so far seem to suggest a low risk. The virus can persist up to 27 hours in body fluid after death, but the infectious potential is unclear. The only evidence of having contracted Covid-19 from dead bodies seems to come from those who invasively handle dead bodies. Performing autopsies or embalming expose people to aerosols of body fluid. There are reports of people getting infected with the disease with such exposure.
Back home, All India Institute of Medical Sciences (AIIMS) Bhopal in a research conducted last year, found no evidence of people getting infected with Covid-19 by exposure to dead bodies. Another recent study by AIIMS Delhi also found that transmission of the infection through the dead is highly unlikely. Everyone deserves the right to a dignified death. For this is not only a part of the right to dignity for the deceased, but for the relatives as well. Indian courts in multiple judgements have held that the fundamental right to life included the right to live with dignity for all Indian citizens. More research is needed on this issue to permit a more scientific and evidence based approach to handling bodies of Covid-19 victims in India. Not just the safest, the most humane procedures for last rites need to be devised in India.
(DISCLAIMER: This is an opinion piece. The views expressed are the author’s own and have nothing to do with OTV’s charter or views. OTV does not assume any responsibility or liability for the same. The author is an Orthopedic Surgeon and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org)
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