Indarsingh: WHO does not prohibit open-air cremation

The content originally appeared on: Trinidad and Tobago Newsday

Rudranath Indarsingh

Couva South MP Rudranath Indarsingh is again calling on the Health Minister and the CMO to address the issue of the pile-up of bodies at the nation’s mortuaries and the disposal of bodies through open-pyre cremation.

He says the World Health Organization (WHO) has not stated that open-air cremations are not allowed.

The Health Ministry’s guidelines to funeral homes says, “Open-air pyre cremations will not be allowed for persons who are covid19 positive at the time of death as indicated in the death certificate.”

At the Opposition’s media briefing on Sunday, Indarsingh quoted the WHO’s interim guidelines on infection prevention and control for the safe management of a dead body in the context of covid19. The document was issued in March 2020, before the WHO declared that the virus was an airborne one (it was so declared in May 2021), and updated in September 2020.

It said, “To date there is no evidence of persons having become infected from exposure to the bodies of persons who died from covid19.”

In its September 2020 update, the WHO said, “Based on current knowledge of the symptoms of covid19 and its main modes of transmission (droplet/contact), the likelihood of transmission when handling human remains is low.”

It also said people who have died from covid19 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.

“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.”

Indarsingh said if the government, including Minister of Health Terrence Deyalsingh, Chief Medical Officer Dr Roshan Parasram, the Prime Minister and Attorney General had read the document, “as it relates to following the science and following the WHO, they will do all in their power to ensure that the disposal of the dead is respected in the context of cultural and religious tradition as espoused by the WHO.”

Indarsingh said there is a deafening silence on the matter by both Deyalsingh and Parasram.

“After two years in a pandemic, where is the science to tell people they cannot cremate their loved ones in a timely manner, whether you are Hindu, Christian, Presbyterian, Baptist, whatever, why the incompetence and chaos and confusion?”

On December 16 last year, the Sanatan Dharma Maha Sabha received permission from a high court judge to pursue a judicial review claim challenging the government’s ban on open-pyre cremations for covid19 victims.

In its leave application, the organisation said, as a religious institution, it has acted responsibly by holding consultations with the minister to arrive at a “proportionate approach” to the issue to balance the risk of transmission of covid19 while addressing the “prohibitive and unmanageable costs of indoor cremations” for Hindu families.

It argued, “An open-pyre cremation is significantly less costly than indoor cremations, and this would have primarily redounded to the benefit of the Hindu community whose religious practice includes cremating as soon as possible in an open pyre.”

The organisation has written to several funeral homes asking for information on the associated costs for preparing the bodies of covid19 victims for burial or cremation. It said many people have complained that such cremations in an indoor crematorium cost between $20,000 and can be as high as $50,000, while an open-pyre cremation costs between $6,000 and $7,500.