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Covid-19: Burial rites set to change





"AMA, where am I ever going to see you? Is this how it's going to end?" cried a heartbroken 21-year-old Chido Sibare as the funeral hearse carrying her mother's body drove past.

Her mother succumbed to the deadly Covid-19 and social media was, the following morning, buzzing with pictures of family members running after the hearse as it drove away with their relative's remains which would be buried by a Covid-19 task force, while they could only watch from a distance.

Many people have not been accorded the chance to bid farewell to their loved ones and to make matters worse, government has set stringent rules over the transportation of bodies outside places of their death.

The rules are apparently aimed at limiting the number of bodies transported to rural areas as well as banning body-viewing. The government will now clear the movement of bodies straight to the burial site from mortuaries or funeral parlours.

This, according government, will help curtail the spread of Covid-19. Corpses can only be transported to faraway places when they are "hermetically sealed" and placed in "triple coffins".

Researchers have, however, questioned the logic behind these restrictions insisting Covid-19 can only be spread from dead bodies if there is physical contact.

According to Dr Faheem Younus, the head of Infectious Diseases Clinic, University of Maryland, US, the virus does not fly through the air. It is a respiratory drop that requires close contact.

Based on this theory, the ban on the travel of dead corpses and body-viewing is unnecessary and only worsens the pain on relatives.

As Covid-19 cases continue to rise, more and more measures have been put in place as a way to curb the virus from spreading. Some of the regulatory measures include that people wear masks, social distance, avoid greeting with hands and to avoid church and family gatherings. These regulations have effectively changed the way of life everywhere in the world.

Cultures too have been affected a great deal and at great pain too. African culture dictates that when a family member or a relative dies, people gather to pay their last respects, commiserate and find closure as it were - to prove and to accept that the person is no more and has been buried. The process usually involves a lot of physical contact as people mourn and console each other.

But the advent of Covid-19 has changed all that to a point where it might soon be necessary that people are buried wherever they would have died and relatives are not accorded the chance to attend the funeral. Where the body of a loved one is brought to the village for burial, the law still allows just 30 people to attend the burial - something totally alien to the African culture where the bigger the number of mourners spoke to the popularity of the deceased person.

Social distancing has required that people keep each other at arm's length and lockdown enforcement has made it literally unlawful for relatives and friends to visit.

Lockdown dictates that everyone stays at home to minimise interaction and infection - unless it is absolutely necessary to leave the house.

The Standard last week set out to find out what people think about some of the measures put in place to limit the spread of Covid-19. The survey showed that people have divergent views on the various measures, but most shared repugnance over the most recent regulation seeking to stop the movement of corpses for burial in places of their choice, especially to rural areas.

Harare resident Ishmael Maukazuva said the decision to ban movement of dead bodies was not right and infringed on the rights of people to choose a place for their final resting place and also was un-African.

"People are already hurt by losing their beloved ones in ill-equipped health institutions. Now, barring them from burying their relatives in their places of choice is inflicting more pain."

Tatenda Mararike said: "Covid-19 regulations now seek to force us to abandon the way of our ancestors. We are in trouble. All our lives we have known that a person is laid to rest with one of its own. Where I come from it is an abomination to be buried among strangers in towns.

"If we continue like this, we will surely perish from the wrath of angry ancestors. Government, through its policies, is simply invoking more problems for the country. How do you expect even the rains to fall when such sacrilege is being committed?" he said.

Tanaka Muchirahondo said: "We need to understand we are living through a crisis. Death is so final. Is it not right to try to prevent it as much as possible? The preservation of life should be the most important thing now. I am not saying it is right, but I understand."

Chief Mutekedza from Chikomba district said: "It is understandable that government is making efforts to contain the virus, but there is need to offer dignity to the dead in accordance with Zimbabwean culture.

"In my view, relatives of the dead should be allowed to bury their loved ones in places of their choice, but under strict Covid-19 regulations. What if the relatives can't afford the grave fees charged in towns? Yes, we are in difficult times of the pandemic, but we cannot sacrifice our tradition and bury our beloved ones like dogs," Mutekedza said.

Zimbabwe National Traditional Healers Association president George Kandiero said the new normal had totally changed the way Africans go about with their lives, especially burial rites. He, however, said because of the pandemic which was beyond people's control, we had limited choices, including the preservation of our culture.

"It is a very pertinent issue that you are raising. Our customs and traditions have been violated. Our dead are no longer given the right to spend a night, to lie in state in their homes before departing for burial. We are no longer saying goodbye; paying our last respects properly," Kandiero said.

"But from our own point of view as custodians of tradition, we seek appeasement in everything we do as Zimbabweans. At this point in time it's a huge crisis we are facing and if we don't follow these guidelines, we will all perish."

He said although it was painful and difficult, it was only right that Zimbabweans accept the reality of the situation they were in.

"The family in this case has to sit down and perform rites to let the ancestors know of the situation on the ground and why you have failed to carry out certain rites. You also need to speak with the dead person so that he or she understands the situation although nowadays most of the people are passing on fully aware of the new normal," said Kandiero.

"It's clear as day that our traditions and customs have totally shifted; it's now called the new normal. We are trying to adjust, but it's an issue troubling all of us."

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Chuka (Webby) Aniemeka
Chuka (Webby) Aniemeka

Chuka is an experienced certified web developer with an extensive background in computer science and 18+ years in web design &development. His previous experience ranges from redesigning existing website to solving complex technical problems with object-oriented programming. Very experienced with Microsoft SQL Server, PHP and advanced JavaScript. He loves to travel and watch movies.

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