Covid 19 Pandemic: Body Disposal Crisis–What to Do with Dead People in a Living World? (Part 1)

COVID19 - CORONAVIRUS, 24 May 2021

Prof Hoosen Vawda – TRANSCEND Media Service

(Read Part 2 HERE)

No Place to Die

19 May 2021 – Global Corona virus pandemic has caused multiple hardships ranging from death, extreme human suffering, unemployment, economic destruction, liquidation of travel and tourism industries, death of sporting events, even delaying and threatening the rescheduled 2020 Tokyo Olympic Games[1], to the decimation of performing arts, restaurants and culture, amongst many other aspects of civilised lifestyle.

The pandemic also created a new challenge of what to do with dead people in a living world?  This is caused by the increasing numbers of deaths, globally, as a direct result of the pandemic.   The discovery of the new, more transmissible variant of the SARS Cov-2 virus in India[2], has resulted in daily increases in deaths and has now threatened its spread to United Kingdom, which is trying extremely hard to reopen the pubs and restaurants and stimulate the economy.

Even though humanoids do not like to think about our ultimate demise and final destination, which is non-negotiable, death is guaranteed. Our lifespan is a predestined, appointed term for our earthly existence, the time will arrive when we shall leave this world and our earthly possessions behind. This is of greater relevance presently, during the Covid pandemic, than even during the two World Wars and several “Cold Wars”, combined, as well as the incessant killing of civilians in various “trouble hot spots” presently active around the world.  These conflicts which create multiple humanitarian crises, are principally generated and driven by the ideology of control, overdrive of the primitive, reptilian component of the humanoid brain[3], hegemony, expansionism and expropriation of land, from the indigenous owners.  This is a materialistic and precolonial philosophy which is still prevalent today.

When death is eventually encountered, people, all around the world, deal with death and treat the bodies of their beloved, differently. Funeral rites vary between cultures, but the major factor which plays a role in how the final rites and funerary processes are performed, together with the disposal of the human body, is religion.

In India, the pandemic deaths have reached epic proportions[4] numbering 291, 331, and total global deaths at 3,430,955 as reported on 21st May 2021 at 0920 GMT. Land for burial of the deceased is at a premium, where interment is prescribed by the respective religion of the deceased.  Similar scenarios are unfolding in Brazil with 444,094 deaths. In case where cremations are mandatory[5], often there is no wood available for open funeral pyres along the riverbanks of Ganges in Varanasi[6], where every Hindu aspires to die, but there is no place to die and bodies are presently bedecked with beautiful orange coloured marigolds and disposed of in the holy Ganges River.  These bodies decompose while floating in the river and they are pecked on by ravens and hungry canines as shown in the graphic. The overwhelming odour of multitude of decomposing and foetid smelling bodies, which once belonged to some important personage, now add to the gross environmental pollution alongside the banks of the Ganges River[7].

Furthermore, the incompletely cremated bodies are either washed into the Ganges River in the precincts of Varanasi. This further adds to the pollution, as well as causing a serious health, biohazard to humans and animals around the area.  In addition, the devotees are also exposed to serious infections, while having a ceremonial bath in the waters of the holy Ganges River, as practiced by the Hindu devotees.  This is done to expiate their worldly transgressions, in order to reincarnate to a better life in the next reincarnation. This is as described in the Hindu scriptures, such as the Bhagvad Gita[8] and the South Indian, Thevarum[9].

Ganges River funeral

Surprisingly, there is also a positive aspect to the partly cremated bodies and unburnt or smoked remnants of the deceaseds’ body parts during the Covid-19 pandemic in India.  This is an revelation revelation, for living alongside the cremation areas or ghats[10], along the Ganges River are a group of individuals with unique dietary habits, which are cannibalistic.  These people belonging to the rather reclusive and highly respected, as well as feared tribe of the Aghoris. THIS exiled tribe of Aghori monks meditate on top of dead bodies and feast on human flesh and faeces.[11]

The Indian tribe, who feed off the dead, have been banned from their native land and are feared by most countrymen. But Italian photographer Cristiano Ostinelli[12] braved their cannibalistic ways and spent time with the tribe to try and discover more about their way of life.  In doing so he captured these breathtaking images showing the monks with white painted faces and beads strung around their necks. The mysterious tribe members live in cemeteries and feast on human flesh as part of their rituals. They also drink from human skulls and eat people’s excrement. Chewing the heads off live animals and meditating on top of dead bodies in search of spiritual enlightenment, is also a pastime for this unusual tribe. “There is a great mystery around them and the Indians fear them, they say they can predict the future, walk on water and do evil prophecies,” said Cristiano.

The monks use a combination of marijuana, alcohol, and meditation to help them reach a disconnected state of heightened awareness and bring themselves closer to revered Hindu god Lord Shiva[13]. The Aghori also believe that by immersing themselves without prejudice in what others deem taboo or disturbing, they’re on course to achieving enlightenment. They live among India’s cremation sites, where Lord Shiva and goddess Kali Ma are said to dwell and feed on what others throw away. Bodies are often cremated and then scattered into the sacred Ganges river, but some bodies are disposed of without cremation.  The Aghori are said to collect these remains and use them for their spiritual enlightenment, wearing the corpses, consuming them or building alters from them.  The monks believe that flesh and blood are transitory and that the body is ultimately inconsequential. They emphasise this idea by living in cemeteries and surrounding themselves with death and decay.  Shunning material goods is also part of their culture and the members often walk around completely naked. This is meant to detach them from earthly delusions and allows them to be in their purest form. They trace their religion back to 17th-century puritan Baba Kinaram[14], who is said to have lived to the age of 170. Herodotus[15] mentions funerary cannibalism[16] among the Callatiae, a tribe of India.[17]

It is believed that some South American indigenous cultures, such as the Mayoruna people, practiced endocannibalism in the past.[18] The Amahuaca Indians of Peru[19] picked particles of bone out of the ashes of a cremation fire, ground them with corn, and drank as a kind of gruel.[20] For the Wari’ people in western Brazil, endocannibalism was an act of compassion where the roasted remains of fellow Wari’ were consumed in a mortuary setting,[21] ideally, they would consume the entire corpse, and rejecting the practice would be offensive to the direct family members.[22] Ya̧nomamö consumed the ground-up bones and ashes of cremated kinsmen in an act of mourning; this is still classified as endocannibalism, although, strictly speaking, “flesh” is not eaten.[23] Such practices were generally not believed to have been driven by need for protein or other food.[24]

However, what ever the rationale for endo[25] and exo-cannibalism[26]. Endocannibalism has also been used to describe the consumption of relics in a mortuary context.[27]  Exocannibalism has also historically been viewed to acquire the strength and ability of a defeated enemy. The consumers of the dead corpses in various parts of the world are having a field day in terms of availability of an ample supply of bodies of victims of SAR Cov-2 infections.

It is well documented, scientific fact that cannibalism of any type as a means of disposal of the human body, especially when mass deaths have occurred in certain cultures, be it in India, Papua New Guinea[28] or in the depths of Latin America makes the consumer prone to prion[29] infections of the brain.  Example of such a disease is Kuru.  This is a very rare, incurable, and fatal neurodegenerative disorder that was formerly common among the Fore people of Papua New Guinea[30]. Kuru is a form of Transmissible Spongiform Encephalopathy[31] (TSE), the human equivalent of Mad Cow Disease, caused by the transmission of abnormally folded proteins called prions, which leads to symptoms such as tremors and loss of coordination from neurodegeneration.

The Covid pandemic is still just over 18 months since its discovery in Wuhan, China[32] and it is too early to establish the occurrence of any form of TSE in the Aghoris as they are consuming partially cremated flesh of Covid infected bodies, apart from those ceremoniously placed in the Ganges River[33] as a funerary rite in India due to shortage of wood for funeral pyres which are burning 24 hours along the banks of the Ganges in the Varanasi district.

In Latin America[34], where interment of the body is usually done since the major religion of the country is Catholicism, although Catholics are now accepting cremation as religiously acceptable, huge excavators are used to dig graves on virgin land, which is used to bury the enormous numbers of bodies as recorded by drone photography of burial sites which are in extremely limited supply and availability.  In some areas, it is sad to note that deforestation is necessary to allocate land for the creation of new burial sites, contribution further to global warming, just as the open funeral pyres burning 24 hours is devouring wood from trees mercilessly chopped for cremation.  Similarly, gas consuming crematoria are also in operation, 24 hours, contributing to climate change, increasing the carbon footprint significantly, in the process.  Hence, Covid pandemic is also responsible for global warming simply from body cremations.  It is to be noted that cremation of the dead is not only prescribed in and restricted to Hinduism, but is practiced in the following religions, as well, with appropriate motivation and what their ideology is behind allowing it [35]:-

Buddhism[36] is one of the religions that encourage cremation. The Buddhist traditions on dealing with the physical remains of humans have evolved over time. Early in the third century, forest burials were in practice, which was followed by mummification and then sky burials. Sky burial is seen as the ultimate act of compassion in which even your remains are useful to birds and animals. This is still followed by quite a few Tibetans. After the birds and animals are done with the body, the remains are then cremated or placed in a sanctuary.  In Mumbai, the Parsees use the Towers of Silence[37] to dispose of the dead bodies, which are not worthy of defiling earth by burying them, or defiling fire by cremating them. A dakhma, also known as the Tower of Silence, is a circular, raised structure built by Zoroastrians[38] for excarnation, which is the exposure of human cadavers to the elements for decay in order to avert contamination of the soil with the corpses. Carrion birds, usually vultures and other scavengers, would typically consume the flesh and the skeletal remains would have been left in the pit.

The spiritual founder of Buddhism, Gautama Buddha[39], was cremated on a funeral pyre and many choose to follow his example through cremation. The family can then choose to enshrine the cremated remains or scatter them as they deem fit. While cremation is the more traditional option, a family can choose to bury their loved one’s body, as well.

One religion that strongly encourages cremation is Hinduism[40]. According to Hindu beliefs, cremation not only helps with the disposal of physical remains but also aides in ushering the soul of the deceased into the hereafter for its reincarnation and rebirth. This is the philosophy of recycling the souls into a better life in the next rebirth or a bad life in the next rebirth, depending on the life led in the present cycle of life

The cremated remains can be kept by the family, or they can be scattered. In Hinduism[41], the belief is that the soul itself is inherently pure. However, the soul needs a vessel: the body, to live in. However, the body is prone to worldly attachments and desires. Upon the death of the individual, the soul leaves the body and enters another body until it achieves Mukti[42] when it has reached perfection. Hindus believe that cremation helps the soul in getting closer to Mukti.

In the past, the Catholic Church didn’t support cremation. However, with the changing times, it is now acceptable for Catholics[43] to be cremated. One mandatory tradition that continues is the presence of the body at the Funeral Mass[44]. This means that cremation should be done after the funeral mass is over. The cremated remains can either be entombed, buried at sea, or placed in the ground. However, as a Catholic, remains should not be scattered.

Lutherans also accept cremation[45], with a traditional Lutheran funeral along with cremation. Similarly, Methodists[46] don’t oppose cremation, and if it is the wish as a Methodist to be cremated, then that is acceptable, without it interfering with traditional Methodist funerals.

Anglican Church[47] does not forbid cremation, but the body can be cremated before or after the funeral. In the Baptist faith, there is no ban on cremations, either.

For Jews, like many Christians, the rules regarding cremation vary. Even though Orthodox Jews do not allow cremation, a Rabbi can still perform the funeral rites of a cremated person as is now practiced withing the Reformed Jews, though in very limited numbers. Cremation is becoming very popular amongst Reformed Jews, and several Reform Rabbis[48] willingly perform funeral rites and are present at the interment of a person who has just been cremated.

When it comes to interment and cremation, there are no religious rules at all, and the Quakers[49] can choose themselves whether they want to be cremated or buried. As a Quaker, one can choose to get urns for ashes and then enshrine the urn or scatter the ashes.

Jehovah’s Witnesses[50] differ from other Christians since they do not believe in the physical resurrection; rather, they believe that it is the spirit that will be resurrected, and thus, they don’t need a physical body for the resurrection. Therefore, there are no religious rules that prohibit cremations. However, the local customs and norms within a community are applicable when it applies to burying the bodies of their loved ones.

Over the past two decades, cremation as a means of disposing the human body has gained great popularity. However, the deceased must ultimately decide what to do with the mortal remains, well before the individual’s demise and be documented in a will for executive action posthumously, in order to obviate any intra-family disharmony.

On the contrary, several religions prohibit cremation and a devote of these religions have applicable rules which do not permit a follower of the faith to be cremated.

Islam strictly prohibits cremating the remains of a Muslim. Of all the religions, Islam is most strictly opposed to cremation. Even though there is some degree of flexibility regarding cremations in other Abrahamic faiths[51], such as Judaism and Christianity, there is absolutely no allowance for cremation in Islam. Muslims are also forbidden to be a witness of such an event and are not even allowed to give it their stamp of approval for non-Muslims. The belief in Islam which imposes a strict ban on body cremations is that the dead body needs to be treated with the same respect as it was given when the person was alive and breathing. Furthermore, the body must be interred for it to receive the dues in the grave, based on the type of life the individual led, while alive. In Sri Lanka in 2020, the government imposed compulsory cremation[52] for the deceased in the Islamic community, resulting in a huge public outcry.  However, this was victimisation of the Muslim minority in Sri Lanka[53] during the height of the Covid pandemic.  The body acts as a reminder that the worldly life is transient, and nothing is eternal in the brief earthly existence. In an Islamic funeral[54], the physical remains are buried in the graveyard after the funeral prayers have been performed.

Mormons[55] do not prohibit cremation, but it is not encouraged, either. The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints prefer burying the body. Unlike other Christians, they believe that the soul is inextricably tied to the body.  Due to this, they usually avoid cremation unless the law requires them to do so.

Although there are no rules which prohibit cremation in the Presbyterian Church[56], most Presbyterians[57] do not support cremation. They believe that the body is sacred, and it should be buried in the ground, intact. Similarly, the Eastern Orthodox Church[58] also prohibits cremation.

Orthodox Jews[59], like Muslims[60] do not subscribe to cremation and strictly prohibit it. Their belief is that the physical remains of a mortal must be buried in the ground, completely intact.

The bottom line is that a new challenge has been presented by SAR Cov-2 pandemic, globally, which is what to do with the enormous number of deaths due to the pandemic and how to dispose of the mortal remains of humanoids.  This has resulted in science re-examining the disposal of the human bodies and associated funeral customs, depending on different religious dictates and cultural practices.

These aspects of death and dying, as well as body disposal over the millennia, ranging from eternal preservation to literally carrying your loved one on your finger, eternally, will be discussed in Part 2 of the publication.

References:

[1] https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/world-asia-57097853

 

[2] https://www.nbcnews.com/health/health-news/covid-variant-india-how-contagious-new-variant-n1267619

 

[3] https://siimland.com/how-your-reptilian-brain-controls-your-behavior/#:~:text=The%20basal%20ganglia%2C%20also%20called%20the%20reptilian%20brain,septum%2C%20amygdala%2C%20hypothalamus%2C%20hippocampal%20complex%2C%20and%20cingulate%20cortex.

 

[4] https://coronavirus.jhu.edu/map.html

 

[5] https://www.aftermath.com/blog/culture-practice-cremation/

 

[6] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Varanasi

 

[7] https://www.weforum.org/agenda/2019/08/these-are-the-challenges-facing-india-s-most-sacred-river/#:~:text=Plastic%20and%20industrial%20waste%2C%20such%20as%20waste%20water,faster%20than%20the%20rainy%20season%20can%20replenish%20it.

 

[8] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Bhagavad_Gita

 

[9] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Tevaram

 

[10] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ghats_in_Varanasi#:~:text=Ghat%2C%20a%20term%20used%20in%20the%20Indian%20subcontinent%2C,Ghats%20in%20Varanasi%2C%20Dhoby%20Ghaut%20or%20Aapravasi%20Ghat.

 

[11] https://www.dailystar.co.uk/travel/travel-news/indian-tribe-cannibal-monks-eat-17204589

 

[12] https://www.sony.co.uk/alphauniverse/ambassadors/cristiano-ostinelli

 

[13] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Shiva

 

[14] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Baba_Keenaram

 

[15] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Herodotus

 

[16] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Endocannibalism#:~:text=Also%2C%20the%20Aghoris%20of%20northern%20India%20consume%20the,particles%20of%20bone%20out%20of%20the%20ashes%20

 

[17] Cowie, Ashley. “Bizarre, Brutal, Macabre And Downright Weird Ancient Death Rituals”. Ancient Origins. Retrieved 7 February 2019.

 

[18] Dorn, Georgette M. & Tenenbaum, Barbara A. (1996). Encyclopaedia of Latin American history and culture. New York: C. Scribner’s Sons. pp. 535–37. ISBN 978-0-684-19253-6. Archived from the original on 7 August 2007. Retrieved 5 August 2007.

 

[19] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Amahuaca#:~:text=The%20Amahuaca%20or%20Amhuaca%20are%20indigenous%20peoples%20of,illegal%20loggers.%20In%201998%20they%20numbered%20about%20520.

 

[20] Dole, Gertrude (1962). “Division of Anthropology: Endocannibalism Among the Amahuaca Indians”. Transactions of the New York Academy of Sciences. 24 (5 Series II): 567–73. doi:10.1111/j.2164-0947.1962.tb01432.x.

 

[21] Conklin, Beth (2001). Consuming Grief. University of Texas Press.

 

[22] Conklin, Beth (2001). Consuming Grief. University of Texas Press.

 

[23] “Endocannibalism of the Yanomami”. Users.rcn.com. Retrieved 31 March 2010.

 

[24] Dorn, Georgette M. & Tenenbaum, Barbara A. (1996). Encyclopedia of Latin American history and culture. New York: C. Scribner’s Sons. pp. 535–37. ISBN 978-0-684-19253-6. Archived from the original on 7 August 2007. Retrieved 5 August 2007.

 

[25] Vilaca, Aparecida (2000). “Relations between Funerary Cannibalism and Warfare Cannibalism: The Question of Predation”. Ethnos. 65 (1): 83–106. doi:10.1080/001418400360652. S2CID 143616841.

 

[26] Davis, R. (2008). You Are What You Eat: Cannibalism, Autophagy and the Case of Armin Meiwes. Territories of Evil, 45, 151

 

[27] Metcalf, Peter (1 January 1987). “Wine of the Corpse: Endocannibalism and the Great Feast of the Dead in Borneo”. Representations (17): 96–109. doi:10.2307/3043794. JSTOR 3043794

 

[28] https://www.britannica.com/place/Papua-New-Guinea

 

[29] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Prion

 

[30] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Fore_people

 

[31] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Transmissible_spongiform_encephalopathy

 

[32] https://www.nytimes.com/article/coronavirus-timeline.html

 

[33] https://www.britannica.com/place/Ganges-River

 

[34] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Latin_America

 

[35] https://www.joincake.com/blog/what-religion-cremate-their-dead/

 

[36] Talbot, Mary. “Buddhist Death Rites.” Teachings, Tricycle, December 2012. tricycle.org/magazine/buddhist-death-rites.

 

[37] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Tower_of_Silence

 

[38] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Zoroastrianism

[39] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Gautama_Buddha

 

[40] Carey, Tanith. “My Father’s Hindu Funeral.” Family, The Guardian, March 25, 2011. theguardian.com/lifeandstyle/2011/mar/26/father-hindu-funeral-cremation-tanith-carey.

 

[41] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Hinduism

 

[42] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Mukti

 

[43] Wooden, Cindy. “Final Resting Place. CNS News, Catholic News Service, October 25, 2016. catholicnews.com/services/englishnews/2016/final-resting-place-vatican-releases-instruction-on-burial-cremation.cfm

 

[44] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Catholic_funeral#:~:text=A%20funeral%20Mass%20usually%20concludes%20with%20the%20rite,church%2C%20it%20may%20be%20conducted%20in%20the%20cemetery.

 

[45] Contributing Writers. “How Do Lutherans Regard Organ Donation and Cremation?” ELCA, ELCA Manual, January 2013. download.elca.org/ELCA%20Resource%20Repository/How_do_Lutherans_regard_organ_donations.

 

[46] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Methodism

 

[47] https://anglicanchurchsa.org/

 

[48] https://www.timesofisrael.com/topic/reform-rabbis/

 

[49] Marant, Morgan. “Quaker Funeral Traditions.” News and Articles, Funerals360, October 6, 2015.funerals360.com/blog/funeral-customs-and-traditions/world-funeral-customs-quaker-funeral-traditions/#:~:text=Emotional%20Tone%20on%20Quaker%20Deaths,to%

 

[50] https://www.jw.org/en/

 

[51] https://christian.fandom.com/wiki/Abrahamic_Faiths#:~:text=%20Abrahamic%20Faiths%20%201%20Judaism.%20Judaism%20is,Muslims%20call%20God%20%27Allah%27%2C%20and%20believe…%20More%20

 

[52] https://www.india.com/news/world/amid-lockdown-sri-lanka-makes-cremation-compulsory-for-covid-19-deaths-3998064/

 

[53] https://www.bbc.com/news/world-asia-21840600

 

[54] https://cremationinstitute.com/muslim-funeral-traditions/

 

[55] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Mormons

 

[56] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Presbyterianism

 

[57] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Presbyterianism

 

[58] https://www.christianity.com/church/denominations/what-is-the-eastern-orthodox-church-history-and-beliefs.html

[59] Hegarty, Siobhan. “Coronavirus Cremations Horrific for Muslims.” ABC Radio National, ABC, March 31, 2020. abc.net.au/news/2020-04-01/coronavirus-cremations-and-muslim-jewish-death-rites/12105842.

 

[60] https://www.whyislam.org/islam-across-the-globe/who-are-muslims/

______________________________________________

Professor G. Hoosen M. Vawda (Bsc; MBChB; PhD.Wits):
Director: Glastonbury Medical Research Centre; Community Health and Indigent Programme Services; Body Donor Foundation SA.
Principal Investigator: Multinational Clinical Trials
Consultant: Medical and General Research Ethics; Internal Medicine and Clinical Psychiatry:UKZN, Nelson R. Mandela School of Medicine
Executive Member: Inter Religious Council KZN SA
Public Liaison: Medical Misadventures
Activism: Justice for All
Email: vawda@ukzn.ac.za


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This article originally appeared on Transcend Media Service (TMS) on 24 May 2021.

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