18 April, 2021

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The “Burial Vs Cremation Issue 

By Upatissa Pethiyagoda

Dr. Upatissa Pethiyagoda

The media have been inundated with opinions on the above issue, even to the point of boredom. The dialogue could be divided into two. One is based on religion or tradition, the other on public health and science. The first should be expected and the second respected. The first should be handled by the respective religious leaders and the second by microbiologists and health-care scientists. An extraneous element is unfortunately, (and predictably?) looming in the shadows. A “Specialist Panel’s” recommendation is said to be awaited. I would leave the emotional and (electorally) sensitive matters to those who are better equipped to handle them, and address some of the technical issues.

Trusting my memory recall (of about 60 years ago) and some reading, viruses have certain interesting properties (i) They are extremely minute, the largest virus is much smaller than the smallest bacterium. As a consequence, they are too small to be seen by (the then available) light microscopes and were therefore considered as “sub-microscopic”. They could pass through the finest filters and thus labelled as “non-filterable”. I presume that the advent of Electron Microscopy and finer filtering capacity, may mean that both definitions are no longer valid. (ii) Viruses have no independent existence and require a living host to survive. Like bacteria, they cannot jump and require passive carriage. In Coronavirus, this is by air-borne droplets or contaminated surfaces. This is why masks and social distancing are vital. Likely surfaces are decontaminated, (although we do not know what is being sprayed!) Since the virus enters through the nose or mouth and gets into the respiratory system, eliminating these chances by hand-washing and avoiding facial contact, are all-important. (iii) “Living things” are generally defined by seven attributes (seven in all?). Among which are Respiration and Reproduction. Viruses fail on several accounts and are in a sense, intermediate between the living and the inanimate. We humans self-flatteringly, place ourselves at the top of the evolutionary scale, with viruses at the bottom. When the lowliest are able to “knock for six” the highest, a reset is probably warranted. (iv) The virus cannot reproduce (or even survive for long ), outside a host cell, instead it cannily gets the host cell to provide the raw material (nucleic acid and protein) to build replicates of itself! The virus is in a sense, a bag of genetics encased in a protein capsule. It has no supporting cytoplasm.

I have no intention of being pedantic or tutorial, but the above basic facts are useful in navigating the maze of information (mostly irrelevant), that confront us. Even at the risk of being ghoulish or morbid, if the above factors are broadly as suggested, the issues then are (a) can a dead body transmit viruses? It probably cannot in the absence of breath, sweat, phlegm or urine. A buried corpse is probably not a source contaminating the environment. A cremated corpse even less so. (b) The process of disintegration of organic material is  by decay (in the presence of oxygen), or by putrefaction in its absence. Either process takes quite long and the virus cannot possibly last long enough to pose any threat. (c) The Water Table is not the equivalent of an underground lake, allowing free lateral movement. Rather, it is like a sponge, refreshed by a slow percolation of water, which by then would have passed through several feet of soil. This would mean that no virus could have the capacity to survive so long, not to mention the efficiency with which soil entraps suspended particles (as happens in purifying urban water supplies by sand-bed filtration).  

In the absence of, or scarcity of burying space (as in major cities), a different strategy is to provide for a “Tiered system”, where expansion horizontally is not feasible. For instance, in the excavations of the catacombs in Rome. Skeletal remains, one above the other, reveal that the practice of multiple burials at the same site, is an age-old one. It was probably required when plagues hit (as now) societies.   

Therefore, I am more than surprised that the “Specialist Panel” is taking so long to deliver its recommendations. It seems probable that its findings would be to allow burial of the Corona Dead. For obvious reasons this deserves very rapid decision.   

In a time of intense bereavement of the immediate family, it would be heartless to inflict another source of anguish. We must avoid hurting the sensitivities of a section of our brother Sri Lankans, in the face of strong scientific evidence to show that burial poses no significant risk. If there is even the slightest doubt, a simple experiment could be done to illustrate the ability of soil to entrap any particle. The simplest test would be to pack soil into a column to simulate a typical stratification of soil and pour into the top a suspension of virus particles (?), and test the percolate for existence of the culprit virus. I believe (unless my assumptions are wildly or significantly in error) that the answer will obviate any unnecessary and senseless hurt.

Let the bereaved unfortunates have the benefit of observing their preference, respecting a fundamental freedom to dispose of their dead, in a manner they desire, through religious compulsions or for any other reason. 

As a gesture of goodwill, the State may even consider meeting the Funeral Expenses, to the extent that would otherwise be needed for compulsory “State” cremation. 

Good sense and science demands such a solution. 

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Latest comments

  • 7
    17

    Dr. Upatissa Pethiyagoda,
    “We must avoid hurting the sensitivities of a section of our brother Sri Lankans, in the face of strong scientific evidence to show that burial poses no significant risk.”

    Why did you say “burial poses no SIGNIFICANT (my emphasis) risk” instead of saying ‘burial poses NO risk’. Does this mean there is some risk involved with burial? If so why take the risk to please some people?
    Are these scientific evidences that you mention related to COVID-19 virus and if so who conducted research and where did they conduct research to obtain those scientific evidences? To my knowledge, WHO has not stated that there are scientific evidence confirming there is no health risk involved with burial. Correct me if I am wrong.

    • 6
      15

      Eagle Eye,

      If the WHO or any health agency says there is ZERO risk in burying the COVID dead, they must show evidence.

      The burden of proof here is not on the govt. And in the meantime, if anyone goes and complains to the UNHRC or even stage a protest overseas, then the discussion ends then and there. No burials.

      • 7
        5

        wow, the Reginald ‘Shemale’ Perehera has risen from the dead. Why did you come back from the dead?

      • 3
        2

        reginald shameless peters,
        .
        That’s not how the scientific method works. I’m glad extremist sinhala buddhist racists like yourself are not involved in science in anyway and are only limited to spreading your poisonous racist venom and idiocy inside your temples.
        .
        The burden of proof is on the government making the claim against established scientific research. There was NO EVIDENCE that burials caused and risk yet the extremist sinhala buddhist racist clergy, pseudo scientist, politicians and peasants peddled a nonsense unscientific claim. The virus would have no chance to survive as soon as it touched the soil let alone be able to travel like a worm looking for ground water. But these concepts are beyond the grasp of the lowlife extremist sinhala buddhist racists. Keep marrying underage girls (as research suggests >80% underage marriages are in the sinhala community) and stop trying to talk about things you’ll never understand like grade 7 science 😂

        • 0
          0

          sitrep24,
          “The burden of proof is on the government making the claim against established scientific research.”
          —-
          What bloody scientific research; who conducted those research and where they have published those research findings? Has WHO told that based on scientific research findings it has been confirmed that burial of COVID infected dead bodies poses no risk? To my knowledge, NO!
          These scientific research are in the minds of “Moda’ Muslims living in stone age who write articles and comments on this subject.

        • 0
          0

          sitrep24,
          “Keep marrying underage girls (as research suggests >80% underage marriages are in the sinhala community)”
          —-
          Dumbo, stop writing blatant lies. Among Sinhalayo there are no underage (below 18 years) marriages because the law prohibits that but among tribal people who live in stone age underage marriages still take place violating human rights of children because Sinhalayo allowed them to have a separate marriage law which will be scrapped under ‘One Country One Law’. Muslims who want to have fun with young chicks have to find some other country. Too bad!

    • 11
      0

      EE, Hasn’t the WHO permitted both Burial and Cremation for Covid-19 deaths? Please correct me if my recollection is incorrect. They have permitted both, then the case rests. They should respect the world’s peak body on health and their advice. Not on prejudices please.

      • 9
        2

        If we go by Eagle’s logic, nobody would walk on the road because there is no guarantee of not being run over by a bus. How stupid can one get?

        • 0
          0

          Old codger,
          What a dumb argument!
          People walk on the road because in certain situations there is no choice. Whereas in the case of disposal of COVID infected dead bodies there is a choice; cremation with zero risk and burial with some risk. To my knowledge, no one has so far told with evidences burial is risk free. So, knowing that there is a risk, people in this country are forced to take that risk because a small group of ‘Modayas’ who live in stone age think dead person is more important than those who are alive.
          So far Dr. Upatissa Pethiyagoda has not provided the evidences that I requested him to provide. Does his silence means he has not got those evidences?

      • 0
        0

        Mahila,
        WHO guidelines says burial OR cremation, not burial AND cremation. Countries are free to choose whichever is most suitable.

        WHO Guidelines issued on 04 September 2020.
        Burial or cremation
        People who have died from COVID-19 can be buried or cremated according to local standards and family preferences.
        •National and local regulations may determine how the remains should be handled and disposed.
        •Family and friends may view the body after it has been prepared for burials, in accordance with local customs. They should not touch or kiss the body and should perform hand hygiene after the viewing.
        •Family and friends should also follow local guidance regarding the number of people that can attend a viewing or burial, and local mask requirements.
        •Those tasked with placing the body in the grave, on the funeral pyre, et cetera, should wear gloves and wash their hands with soap and water after removal of the gloves once the burial is complete.

    • 1
      0

      Dr Pethiyagoda@

      what would not take months/years long in Srilanka ?

      They in EU countries amend prevailing laws, facilitating the people s expectations, almost every week, whenever they meet in their parliaments.
      But srilanka would take 4-5 years to come to a consensus regarding even tiny issues. That is the greater difference between the civilized and the uncivilized nations.
      :
      Not having national policies regarding alarming issues is a big topic to any successive govts, but they have failed to do their job on and on. Now with a man, who is said to be apolitical but his performance, looking at the last 15 months – worst in all times. Alleged high criminal, incumbent presdient does not seem to perceive people’s agonies, anixities, pains, he reacts as if he is blind and deaf, total ignorant. peoples would feel that the dug their grave by their own.

  • 7
    15

    Indeed. I would offer the courtyard of our ancestral home even to bury the COVID dead. I could not care less if it polluted our Drinking wells or even if it killed our entire village.

    All I want is to be politically correct.

    As a matter of fact, all Sinhalese and Tamil homes should open up their gardens and lawns to bury the COVID dead. Because at the end of the day, looking great on an online forum is what that matters.

    Just like the writer has suggested, the govt. should pay for these funerals. Not only that I suggest we out our money where our mouths and open up our own wallets as well.

    And what about the LTTE cemeteries? Seems like ideal places for burial. Good company for each other.

  • 5
    12

    The number has crossed 80,000 mark.
    Now let’s check the sensitivity of Muslims towards us.
    How many Muslim Covid dead have been cremated so far,
    How many Muslim Covid patients have been cared for, treated, cured and released so far.
    What percentage of Muslims are health care workers?

    Soma
    (I am a strong supporter of permitting burial)

    • 5
      12

      —I am a strong supporter of permitting burial—–

      Soma,

      As a Christian, I am a strong believer in Burial. Cremation I think is a very selfish act where as burial benefits the earth, the creatures that feast on our now useless body.

      But my beliefs can take a long hike during a pandemic. Especially if I am aggravating the pandemic by going for Friday prayers against health regulations.

      • 6
        0

        Reginald ‘Shemale’ Perehera, you are a Christian? That’s a hoot!!!!!!!!!!

  • 6
    11

    Albert Einstein, Sigmund Freud, Robert Oppenheimer, John F. Kennedy ( 37 President of the US ), Walt Disney ( even Muslim children watch cartoons right ! ) Rudyard Kipling, George Bernard Shaw, Arthur Rubenstein, Neville Chamberlain, Alexander Fleming,( penicillin ) George Harrison and John Lennon were cremated. So was Steve Jobs. Without whom there would not been Apple or I phones ( or its copycat Android ). Which every Muslim uses. In the year 2011, 45% of deaths in North America were cremated , and it is leap frogging every year. Ever heard of an inventor named Muhammad Husssian, Ibrahim Kassim or Yusof cassim. Me neither. Because they dont exist. No Muslim invented anything in the last 500 years. When you die you die. No one cares. Mate.
    When you cremate a dead body the high-temperatures of the fire ( >1000 deg C ) cause burning, vaporization, and oxidation to reduce it to basic chemical compounds, such as gases and mineral fragments retaining the appearance of dry bone. An adult human body of 90 kilos will just leave behind 2 kilos of bone reside, mostly dry calcium phosphates with some minor minerals, such as salts of sodium and potassium, with a very small amount of carbon as carbonate.

    • 1
      0

      Burning at 1000degC will lead to substantial NOx on top of Co2, CO and other atmospheric pollutants.

  • 8
    1

    That’s solid scientific explanation!

    But even solid scientific knowledge cannot overcome the prevalence of chronic madness in this country that has given leaders like Gotabaya Rajapaksa.

    All these years, the buggers weren’t concerned about burying victims of HIV/AIDS, dengue, various influenza, other covid viruses ( MERS, SARS-Cov), and all sorts of other infectious diseases.

    The buggers don’t question where the household and hospital sewage are ending up from the homes and hospitals where covid-19 infected persons reside.

    Of course, buggers will be buggers. Buggery seizes every opportunity to bully, harass, and fuel hatred. Don’t have to look very far to see examples.

    • 2
      0

      Dear Sugandh@

      My question would be, if all was that disregarded, just because Rajapakshes thought that BURIAL would lead to spread of COVID disease within the community, that should have been made not them being knowledgeable enough. But how could they iron out the greater harm they made in those victimized families. I heard infants were burnt down just because those unedcuated president and his men thought, they should be cremated.
      :
      However, it took months until visiting Pakistan Premier advised srilanken uneducated president et al, that FORCED burials of muslim COVID patients should be stopped.::: WHY ON EARTH; SO CALLED PEOPLE S PRESDIENT HEARD FOREIGN PREMIERS BUT TOTALLY NEGLECTED REPEATED REQUESTS OF THE SRILANKEN CITIZENS ?

      Successive President or ministers are just positions being given to them by the people. But if they dont care the least about the people’s hearted issues, should they further be people’s servants ?

  • 10
    5

    Four Nasty racist buffoons talking out of their rear ends supporting a policy that is outrageous. Look at your government and its policies that are contributing to the spread of the virus. Look at the dumb initial reaction followed by a never ending chain of moronic incompetence that got us to where we are today. None of that has anything to do with the racist cruel policy. Let me tell you one thing that the whole rest of the world knows there is NO risk whatsoever of the virus spreading by burial. If that is to be believed then here is an equally idiotic theory. Cremation should be banned because the crematorium is releasing into the air particulates, smoke and vapor from the burning body. This can spread the virus since it is air bourne. When you become so stupid and nasty to suggest the absurd then the joke ( if it can be called that ) can be turned against you lot of scoundrels.

    • 8
      2

      Thiha, these scumbag racists only see each other as Tamils, Sinhalese, Muslims. They are soooooooooooo dumb, they cannot see 2 inches away from them.

    • 1
      0

      Thiha and Tamil from the north ,
      People who sought asylum in Sinhale have to live with the policies, laws and customs of the host nation. They should not expect the host nation to dance according to their whims and fancies.
      If the descendants have a problem arising from the decision taken by their elders, they are free to return to their ancestral homeland. Sinhalayo did not invite Demala or Muslim people to Sinhale!

      ===
      “This can spread the virus since it is air bourne.”

      Don’t display your stupidity. No virus can survive at the high temperature they are burnt.

  • 0
    0

    Dear Dr UP Sir
    Love all your writings and thank you.
    You have laid the foundation for this piece very well and is good to approach like the way you done..is like Rajan Sir writes his subject. Clarity-Precision-Focus.
    I disagree with this suggestion/case making for the following reasons
    (1) Not many governments in the world have saved their citizens from this pademic successfully but we have done well thanks to our Military sacrifice. We were learning and needed to be conservative in our approach that we are not giving credit to the GoSL for etc. We in the UK have done the worst and many equations have gone unanswered to date….mostly about the initial handling…last year Circa May 2020..no investigations regard to the government handling yet.
    (2) We should not be forced back in our feet because of this “human rights crusaders” finger pointing and we should have some sense of dignity/pride as Sri Lankans too. Once more we (not your intention) were playing politics then our GoSL said no to this non sense. Yes we can review matters now but need to be seen as is for the just reason but not because of the Geo political games…we have already had 50 years of that misery the same military paid a high price too.

    • 0
      0

      At this rate of population growth we will be filling up the rest of the world as economic refugees and once that is exhausted (soon coming in the form of Fascism in the first world war style..who could blame them) we will be eating each others extrement soon for survival with the eroding land mass/ever so shrinking land mass and the ghetto making political mafias and breeding program at the next door neighbour too..there will be nothing living in the Indian Ocean soon due to overfishing and pollution/toxic waste…..not to mention the upcoming war between China and India and the nuclear fall out is being well underway. Yep the breeding program should do something useful other than eating and shitting on each other I guess.

  • 0
    0

    Thanks for the humane things that you have said, Dr Upatissa Pethiyagoda,
    .
    Pain is unwittingly inflicted on so many living beings by us. Your message, with most sensitive commenters agreeing, is that we should minimise this.
    .
    I don’t consider our “sensibilities” (substitute words like soul, spirit, etc as any reader sees fit) will survive the death of our physical bodies. So, I don’t believe that there is any resurrection or life in heaven or hell after death. However, many do, among them Muslims.
    .
    There is “no significant risk” ought surely to be sufficient for us to allow burial, because that should be balanced against not just the suffering caused to the immediate family, the consternation to all Muslims everywhere, and to the possibility of unforeseeable consequences later.
    .
    There’s little purpose quibbling over “how close to zero” the risks are. After all, the virus is spreading in all sorts of other ways while these silly debates are going on.
    .
    Just be kind to other people.

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