Medical staff wearing personal protective equipment conduct door-to-door coronavirus screening in Mumbai's Dharavi slum on June 24. (Photo: Indranil Mukherjee/AFP)
Cardinal Oswald Gracias of Mumbai has explained the confusion that resulted in some laypeople leading funeral rites and accusing their parish priests of not attending the last ceremonies of Covid-19 victims.The cardinal's statement came after the media published reports about lay Catholics leading funeral prayers and blessing graves to bury their family members. The reports also accused priests of refusing to bury Covid-19 victims for fear of contracting the virus.
"The archdiocese wishes to make clear that from the very beginning of the lockdown" on March 25, the clergy have been "responding to funeral requests with care and compassion," the cardinal said in a June 26 statement.
He said the archdiocese had asked parishes not to have public requiem Masses. It also asked for bodies to be taken directly to the burial ground "where all the funeral prayers can be said before the burial."
Directions also advised limiting the number of mourners to the minimum and keeping police informed of the funeral. In a video message, Cardinal Gracias also asked his priests not to visit houses because of the lockdown rules.
"There was no direction to the priests to keep away from funerals," Father Nigel Barrett, spokesperson of Cardinal Gracias, told UCA News on June 28.
There must have been "rare incidents of some priests failing to arrive at a cemetery" but "most of our priests attend funerals with sensitivity and compassion," he said."It is true that on account of misunderstandings in some places priests did not attend the funerals of Covid-19 victims. It is regrettable," Father Barrett said.
The cardinal's statement noted that the city administration changed its directive for Covid-19 burials from first insisting only on cremation, then allowing burials in some cemeteries, and then permitting burials in all cemeteries.
"The archdiocesan norms have been updated according to the revised municipal directives from time to time," the statement said, making clear that there was no communication asking priests not to attend funerals.
'Priests avoided Covid-19 funerals'
However, around mid-June, the archdiocese witnessed at least 20 burials of Catholic Covid-19 victims without a priest "because their parish priests refused to step out of the presbyteries," said Melwyn Fernades, general secretary of the Association of Concerned Catholics.
Fernades, who heads the lay group working for Catholics' rights in Mumbai Archdiocese, said this happened when lay Catholic doctors and nurses worked with Covid-19 patients in hospitals, risking their health and that of their families.On June 14, Abel Correa sprinkled holy water on a grave and blessed it before leading funeral prayers for his uncle Richard Anthony Peter. He then joined a few others present to lower the coffin into the grave.
Correa assumed the priest's role after the priest of their St. Anne's parish in Mazagaon refused to attend it.In another case, Donald Nunes buried his 71-year-old cousin Jerome Nunes, a member of St. Paul parish, on June 4. "There was no priest available," Nunes said.
He blessed the grave and the body by sprinkling holy water and offered the funeral prayers that a Catholic priest is supposed to do.
His family were told that no priest of the archdiocese would bury Covid-19 victims, Nunes told UCA News on June 21.
"We took the body to the cemetery and tried to give a dignified burial to him as best as possible," he said.
"If the priests are so scared of their lives, we could have arranged personal protection equipment kits that would have solved their problem."Fernandes said the priests have "failed in their duty by refusing to bury the dead irrespective of the causes of their death."Agreeing with Fernandes, advocate Cyril Dara, working president of Maharashtra Minority Christian Development Council, told UCA News on June 20 that "definitely, priests' refusal to bury the dead is not Christian."Father Conrad Saldhana, a Mumbai archdiocesan priest, told UCA News on June 21 that "priests' refusal to bury the dead cannot be justified."He said they had prioritized their mission rationally rather than through faith and had failed in their duties.
None of the priests accused of not attending funerals were available to talk to UCA News despite repeated attempts.Catholics such as Nunes insist that after the Covid-19 pandemic, "everyone will have to sit down together and prepare strict guidelines for the functioning of parish priests, failing which the institution will face the same fate of Western countries".
Mumbai, formerly called Bombay and the capital of Maharashtra state, remains the most pandemic-hit city in India. As of June 30, the city had recorded 77,000 of the state's some 170,000 positive cases. The state added 4,878 new cases on June 30 and recorded 245 deaths, including 57 in Mumbai.