Members of a church-formed burial squad, trained to handle bodies of Covid-19 victims, bury the body of Varghese Pallan, a 72-year-old Catholic of Irinjalakuda Diocese in Kerala, on July 26. (Photo supplied)
As fear and confusion persist about burying Covid-19 victims in some parts of India, the Kerala-based Syro-Malabar Church has formed squads to give a dignified burial to people dying from the pandemic.
As Covid-19 began to claim lives in the southern Indian state, several burials led to disputes as ill-informed villagers opposed burials, fearing the spread of the disease from buried bodies.
Confusion about safety, non-availability of undertakers and an inability to dig graves 10 feet deep as per government norms often resulted in Catholics not having a Christian burial.
"We want to ensure a dignified burial to all Catholics and formed volunteer groups in every diocese to assist the parish priest in burying those who die of Covid-19," said Father Abraham Kavilpurayidam, public relations officer of the Syro-Malabar Church.
The Eastern-rite Church has 35 dioceses across the world with close to five million faithful, but 18 dioceses and some four million Catholics live in Kerala.
Father Kavilpurayidam told UCA News on July 27 that the Church has asked all its dioceses to form burial squads — if needed, in parishes too — to help Covid-19 victims "get a decent and dignified burial."
The volunteers are trained to handle bodies as per Covid-19 protocols to ensure that "we follow government guidelines strictly," he said.
One such burial was that of Varghese Pallan, a 72-year-old Catholic of Irinjalakuda Diocese, on July 26. He was buried with all customary funeral prayers and in compliance with government protocols at St. Thomas Cathedral Church on the same day he died."Soon after Pallan died, we were informed," said Father Antu Alappadan, the St. Thomas parish priest and a member of the burial squad in Irinjalakuda Diocese.
The priest said he contacted some volunteers who agreed to be part of the squad. He also informed government officials of the parish's readiness to bury Pallan's body in compliance with norms.
The priest rushed a team of four volunteers to a hospital to accept Pallan's body, while he and some others prepared the 10-feet deep grave as per government protocols to bury Covid-19 victims' bodies.
The four volunteers arrived at the government hospital with a coffin and collected the body wrapped as per protocols and brought it to the cemetery-chapel. The priest and volunteers offered the usual funeral prayers before burying the body.
"Of course, government health officials and police monitored all the work we did to ensure there was no breach of Covid-19 protocols," Father Alappadan said.
The priest said that until the Church created the trained squads, health department officials handled the burial of Covid-19 victims and "never allowed outsiders to handle such bodies."
He and the volunteers put on personal protection equipment kit to ensure their safety. The officials left the place only after sanitizing the cemetery and the volunteers, he said.
"This is an attempt to ensure Catholic burials to all Catholics dying of Covid-19 without unnecessary fear and doubt in the minds," Father Alappadan said.
Pallan's burial was in contrast to that of Ousep George, an 83-year-old Protestant, on the same day some 100 kilometers away in Kottayam district.
George's burial became disputed and resulted in street protests when parishioners of Assembly of God Church objected to burying him in their cemetery, fearing the disease spreading in the village.
Government officials reportedly buried George's body at night in a government cemetery with the consent of family members.
The Church decided to form burial squads following a spike in the number of Covid-19 cases and deaths in the state, Father Kavilpurayidam said.
With a population of some 33 million, Kerala has added close to 1,000 new cases each day of the last fortnight. The first Indian state to report Covid-19 in January, it had reported 63 deaths and some 20,000 cases as of July 28.
Cases have been increasing across the country. India had reported 1.4 million cases and 33,000 deaths as of July 28, making it the most affected country after the US and Brazil.
Cardinal George Alencherry, major archbishop of the Syro-Malabar Church, has appealed to church officials and people to be more cautious and prepared to face the new challenges posed by the pandemic.
Cardinal Alencherry, president of the Kerala Catholic Bishops' Council, offered to help dioceses facing difficulties in combating the disease, said an official statement issued on July 24.
The bishops' council, which also includes bishops of the Latin and Syro-Malankara rites, cautioned priests and volunteers fighting the pandemic to take precautions for their safety.