The onslaught of Coronavirus has meant measures have been taken to accommodate the new normal in the midst of this pandemic. For example, a Birmingham mosque has turned its car park into a temporary morgue holding up to 70 bodies at a time. Other measures have been taken to minimise the the risk of the spread of the disease including conducting funeral rites at the cemetery rather than the mosque to maintain social distancing, and in line with lockdown rules, allowing only six people to attend the cemetery to take part in prayers. However not only had the pandemic ended congregation funeral gatherings, but Mansur Ali, a lecturer in islamic studies at Cardiff University describes how the British Board of Scholars and Imams was now referring to “seldom-used points of Islamic law related to funerary rites”, meaning that rather than the ritual bathing of the body and the use of a white burial shroud, some of the deceased are being put into a plastic body bag, and performing tayammum [wiping over the body bag], put the body into a coffin.
However, while steps have been taken to accommodate, measures were also taken to maintain what is considered a fundamental part of maintaining the dignity of the deceased, in line with Islamic rulings, that is the importance of burial over cremation as a means of disposition. Mariam Ardati, a death doula in the Muslim community, explains that there is a strongly held belief that a connection remains between the body and soul even after death, that it is considered not only forbidden but desecration and “to inflict that type of treatment on the body in death, it’s quite horrific to even consider.”
Emergency measures introduced in March to give ministers powers to respond to the coronavirus outbreak, and to deal with the significant extra pressure on the health system, initially included one measure to manage “the deceased in a dignified way”. Although the details of what that meant was unclear, ministers implied that it could mean a “push towards cremation with memorial services in the months to come”, as Wales’ Health Minister Vaughan Getting spelled out. The bill would therefore have allowed designated local authorities to disregard section 46(3) of the Public Health (Control of Disease) Act 1984, which is designed to prevent a local authority from being able to cremate a body against the wishes of the deceased
This lead to several MPs and religious groups, namely Muslim and Jewish groups, to raise concerns that the powers allocated would then allow local authorities to cremate bodies without the consent of the deceased or their families.
Advocacy group MEND said that while it acknowledged that the purpose of the legislation was to deal with the potential surge in deaths and lack of grave space capacity arising from this pandemic, it urged the the Government not to neglect their responsibilities in upholding Article 9 of both the European Convention on Human Rights and the Human Rights Act 1998, which protects the right to freedom of thought, conscience, and religion. This includes the freedom to manifest one’s religion or belief in worship, teaching, practice, and observance. MEND also emphasised the sanctity of the dead body and the importance of religious burial is an integral component of religious practice for Muslims, as well as Jews, meaning that forced cremation “would add further anguish and trauma to bereaved families, who themselves may be in self-isolation“. A petition on Change.og, launched to highlight the concerns of British Muslims regarded forced cremation of Muslim victims of the disease also garnered over 282,000 signatures.
Member of the opposition, Labour Party’s Naz Shah, submitted an amendment which was backed by 100 MPs, to amend the bill in order to exempt those from faith background from an automatic cremation if they died from Covid 19. However, she no longer needed to push the amendment to a vote after the Government promised to take into account the beliefs over religious burial rights, bringing forward an amendment to address these concerns. Health Secretary Matt Hancock said that the government recognised the need to “accede to the wishes of the families and faith communities” and had therefore accepted the changes.