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Global Roundtable: Coronavirus Crisis Upends Death Rituals

DAVID GREENE, HOST:

Beating a global pandemic requires worldwide effort and sacrifice. It is especially tough to forgo the faith practices meant to offer solace during grief and death. But just as the United States is now restricting gatherings for funerals, so are countries and religious authorities around the world.

And let's get a glimpse of that from three of our colleagues - three NPR international correspondents. Daniel Estrin is in Jerusalem. Jane Arraf is in Amman, Jordan. And Lauren Frayer covers India. She is joining us from Britain. Thanks to all of you for coming on this morning.

DANIEL ESTRIN, BYLINE: Thanks, David.

LAUREN FRAYER, BYLINE: Hi, there.

JANE ARRAF, BYLINE: Thank you.

GREENE: And Jane, let me start with you. Iraq is one country you cover. There are 900 reported cases there. I mean, how has the ritual of mourning changed?

ARRAF: Yeah, really dramatically. You know, in the Arab world, in general, people are buried the same day if possible. And that burial is a very intimate act. The relatives wash the body. And then there are usually three days of mourning, where relatives, neighbors, colleagues come for condolences. These are large gatherings held in tents or halls. And it's a fundamental ritual of life. All of that has changed. In Iraq, we spoke by phone to Abdul Hadi Majid (ph), whose father died of COVID-19 in March. Let's listen.

ABDUL HADI MAJID: (Non-English language spoken).

ARRAF: So he's saying they tried for eight days to get his father's body from the morgue. And then, finally, when they got it, his body was taken along with others and buried far from other plots - not in the family plot - by workers in hazmat suits. He himself has now come down with the disease, but he hopes to do a memorial later, along with lots and lots of people who are hoping for the same thing.

GREENE: As I said, I mean, this is the kind of experience that people are feeling around the world as they confront this. Lauren, India - about a hundred reported deaths from COVID-19 so far. We're talking about a country of 1.3 billion people all under lockdown right now. That's limiting funerals. What are some of the restrictions there?

FRAYER: Right. So India is a majority-Hindu country. And the tradition is cremation, and that happens in huge numbers on the banks of the holy Ganges River. You see these funeral pyres. Many people believe that cremation there ensures salvation. But now those ceremonies have been canceled. Typically, thousands and thousands of people gather for these beautiful sunrise and sunset ceremonies there, and now it's one priest, alone, doing a shortened prayer.

People also travel hundreds of miles to submerge their loved ones' ashes in the Ganges River, but now they can't travel. And so we're getting reports of bags of ashes building up in crematoriums around the country because families can't take them to the holy rivers.

And by the way, this affects all faiths in India. The government has banned the bathing of bodies of COVID-19 victims. Washing bodies, as Jane mentioned, is something that Muslims traditionally do. The government has limited funerals to 20 people or less, and that's deprived many faiths of these big, public funeral processions that are a big part of mourning across South Asia.

There is one burial tradition that doesn't involve crowds, and that's practiced by Parsis, by Zoroastrians, and some Buddhists, and it's called sky burials. And they put dead bodies on a pillar or a mountaintop for vultures and the elements to dispose of, and that is still allowed.

GREENE: All right, so one exception. Daniel, in Israel, I mean, the Jewish mourning period, the shiva, can't go on as usual in this situation.

ESTRIN: Right. This is a gathering that is similar to what Jane was describing for Muslims and Christians in the Middle East. In Judaism, it's seven days. Shiva means seven. And the family usually gathers together. You have this constant stream of guests bringing food and keeping you company, and it helps you get through that initial shock of the death. And now the Israeli government says no more shiva gatherings because it's a health hazard. So you have to grieve at home alone, which is really excruciating.

So some people are doing shiva gatherings on Zoom, on videoconference. But many Orthodox Jews, for instance, have had to give up reciting the special mourner's prayer, the kaddish, because that requires a group of 10 in your home.

And by the way, just like in India, as Lauren said, funerals are now restricted to 20 people here as well, and we've seen a lot of painful scenes of relatives literally being turned away at the cemetery.

GREENE: Well, I mean, obviously, one important thing here is keeping gatherings to a minimum - social distancing - which is why there are all these restrictions. But another issue is the handling of the bodies of those who are dead. The World Health Organization's saying this virus does not live on in bodies, but it does say that people handling them need to be careful, at least in the hours after death. Jane, how are you seeing that play out?

ARRAF: Well, WHO has a list of precautions, including relatives not touching or kissing the body. But there's a lot of misinformation, and there's a lot of fear. And the measures being implemented by some countries go way beyond that. In Iraq, paramilitary forces have taken over the burials. They've devoted a special section of the Najaf cemetery, the biggest in the world, to the victims. The health ministry had tried to designate a special cemetery near Baghdad for some of those early victims, but tribal leaders actually refused, so there's a lot of opposition to this.

GREENE: Daniel, what are you seeing in terms of efforts, you know, by medical workers in Israel and others to help families grieve within this context?

ESTRIN: Well, there have been a lot of changes. There have been special facilities that have been set up to ritually wash the bodies of COVID-19 victims. So attendants are wearing hazmat suits. They wash the bodies, and then they wrap them in shrouds and then two plastic body bags to protect funeral staff who handle the body because coffins are not used in Jewish burials here.

And then, also, there's one Israeli hospital that built a glass booth on the other side of a window, and victims of COVID-19, their bodies are wheeled inside the booth so families who were not allowed to be with their loved ones in the hospital can see them in that booth for one last time.

GREENE: Lauren, I want to ask you about India. I mean, you so often report on religious tensions in that country. Hinduism is the majority faith in India, but there are religious minorities, as you alluded to, including more than 180 million Muslims. I mean, I have to imagine that if you start having government restrictions and rules about religious rituals, that has to be a moment for friction.

FRAYER: Yeah, that's right. The government issued new guidelines over burial rights in a very neutral way, very careful not to mention any specific faith. But in Mumbai, where I live, authorities briefly declared that all COVID-19 bodies must be cremated. That's, of course, the majority-Hindu practice. There was a massive outcry. A Muslim politician intervened, and the order was rescinded within hours.

And it just shows you how sensitive these changes can be. India is home to all of the world's biggest faiths - Hinduism, Islam, Buddhism, Sikhism, Christianity, many others - each with their distinct traditions. And minorities, especially Muslims, already face discrimination in India, and they bristle at any attempts by the majority to infringe on their practices, on their traditions, on their faith. I mean, frankly, India's character as a secular democracy could be at stake here.

GREENE: NPR's Lauren Frayer there; also, NPR's Jane Arraf and NPR's Daniel Estrin. Thank you all so, so much for this.

FRAYER: You're welcome.

ESTRIN: You're welcome.

ARRAF: Thank you.

(SOUNDBITE OF EDAMAME'S "PASSIM [FEAT. EMANCIPATOR]") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.