By 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 I presume that the advent of Electron Microscopy and finer filtering capacity, may mean that both definitions are no longer valid.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.