Resurfacing the Debate over the Cremation of Corpses

Sampath Deshapriya

The social discourse on the burial of the bodies of Sri Lankan Muslims who died of Covid 19 has once again sparked a new round of social dialogue. The government took steps to cremate the bodies instead of permitting them to be buried, and a statement made by Prime Minister Mahinda Rajapaksa in Parliament has given a new impetus to the discussion. Samagi Jana Balawega MP ASM Marikkar asked the Prime Minister in Parliament as to whether burials could be allowed as Minister of State Sudarshan Fernando Pulle stated that the virus was not transmitted through water sources. In response, the Prime Minister stated that permission would be granted for burial. The Prime Minister did not specify Covid deaths in his reply, but since it was Marikkar’s question about Covid, it seems that the answer given by the Prime Minister was relevant.

Based on the Prime Minister’s response in Parliament, Pakistani Prime Minister Imran Khan issued statements expressing his support along with the US and British embassies. Meanwhile, the Sri Lanka Muslim Congress (SLMC) called a press conference and said that four members of their party had supported the 20th Amendment to the government following a promise by Prime Minister Mahinda Rajapaksa to allow the burial of Muslim bodies. 

When the media recently inquired from the State Minister for Covid Control on the gazette notification regarding the statement made by the Prime Minister Mahinda Rajapaksa in Parliament, she mentioned that the technical committee of the Ministry of Health will take decisions on such health matters. So that the relevant decision will be taken on their recommendation. The basic logical issue here is that the Prime Minister’s statement that the cremation of Covid infected Muslim bodies will be permitted is not in line with the recommendations of the Technical Committee of the Ministry of Health as stated by the Minister herself. So, it is questionable as to whether the cremation of Covid infected Muslims has been done for a long time on the recommendation of the Health Committee or based on a political decision by the government.

The Muslim Congress backed the government’s political decision in line with an agreement reached politically with the prime minister to allow burial for all Covid deaths. It also confirms that there is a political connection with this decision as well as a racial and political dynamic.

Scientific investigations and observations were of little value when a Muslim doctor was accused of torturing Sri Lankan Sinhalese women and allegations were made of sterile pills and sterile underwear being distributed to Sinhalse women by those in the Muslim community. Despite the recommendation to appoint a gynecology professor to investigate the case, action was taken under the guidance and advice of a dentist. In this case, too, the opinion that the virus could be spread by burial was socialized through mainstream media, not an expert on the virus. Commenting on this, Sri Lankan community doctors said that the family should be allowed to act according to the health recommendations. Professor Malik Peiris, an expert on the virus, and specialist Nilika Malavige also said that the virus stays in water at a temperature of 23 degrees Celsius for four days and that the process will accelerate further in a country like Sri Lanka. Foreign experts have also suggested burying the body in an antiseptic liquid, as the length of time the virus remains in a corpse is still a matter of debate.

The UN Office of Human Rights has also called on the Sri Lankan government to consider alternative approaches that are not in conflict with minority beliefs, instead of the current policy of coercion. The Minister of Mass Media and Information had stated that he would reject the request of the United Nations. Neither the World Health Organization nor any other local or internationally recognized organization has yet scientifically confirmed the spread of the virus from dead bodies. If such scientific confirmation is made, no one can be expected to oppose it. But what is happening in Sri Lanka is that politicians are playing their usual political game by using a sensitive issue of the people as a pretext.

The views and opinions expressed in this publication are those of the authors. They do not purport to reflect the opinions or views of the Sri Lanka Press Institute.

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