One death, two graves: COVID-19 victims are transferred to normal cemeteries for reburial

26-10-2020 01:45
The committee of burying coronavirus victims in the city of Sulaymaniyah

Peregraf- Lavin Mahmood

The death of singer Atta Chawshin was a difficult experience for his friend and fellow singer, Media Hussein. First, because he had experienced the loss of a 37-year friendship and secondly, his pain grew heavier because he could not easily go to his gravesite to mourn him.

Chawshin succumbed to coronavirus and was buried in a cemetery designated for those who had died from the disease. It was difficult for his relatives and Media Hussein to accept such a cemetery as Chawshin’s final destination.

However, after a period of time consistent with Islamic Shari’a and public health regulations, Hussein was able to properly mourn his friend: “with help from many people, especially his friends, and after making numerous requests to Ministry of Health, General Security Directorate (Asayish) and Sulaymaniyah Governor, we managed to transfer Chawshin’s body from that concealed cemetery to Saywan cemetery [Sulaimaniyah’s public cemetery].”

Singer Atta Chawshin died of coronavirus at the age of 58 on June 22, 2020 after several days in the hospital.

In the cemetery where Chawshin and many other victims of the coronavirus pandemic are buried, funerals and visitation are restricted. Media Hussein told Peregraf, “it is a tragedy that a person like Mr. Atta, whose songs were the manifestation of Kurdistan’s beauty, ends up buried in a place which is not a cemetery nor [a place] with any importance.”

Atta Chawsin was the first coronavirus victim whose grave was cleared for exhumation, and requests from other families followed. The grave of Mala Rashid, the imam of Mahwi Mosque and the first patient to die from coronavirus in Kurdistan Region in early March, was also exhumed and his body was transported to another cemetery.

The coronavirus graveyard is protected an unarmed guard and contains a thicket of saplings, planted around the time the interments began, with some water tanks provided to nourish them.

The names and the dates of death are inscribed on the tombstones. The graves’ occupants are mostly elderly men and women but the cemetery is not bereft of youths. All those who lie there have died from COVID-19.

At the time of writing, the total number of COVID-19 cases in the Kurdistan Region reached 70,155. Of this number, 40,434 have recovered and 2,337 have died.

Sulaymaniyah contains the only cemetery designated for the burial of coronavirus victims. It was established in accordance with medical instructions to prevent the spread of the pandemic.

The bodies had been buried in the cemetery by a special team, but the Governor of Sulaymaniyah later permitted the transfer of the deceased to the public cemetery following requests from relatives.

Khabat Naji, the manager of coronavirus cemetery in Sulaymaniyah, explained to Peregraf that four bodies have been transferred so far. He says that the fulfillment of such requests has led to “follow-up” requests from other families.

He explains that the families seek transfer to the public cemetery “because the place is clean, and the graves are in order; it is a cemetery in Sulaymaniyah and is not only for deaths from coronavirus. When body is moved, others follow, and this is the reason for transferring the deceased.”

According Naji, “there are no differences between the graves [in the coronavirus cemetery and those in the public cemetery], only that [the graves in the former] are two and a half meters deep. The relatives of the deceased also witness the funerals, but if the Ministry of Health and the Governor allows, we also permit transporting the bodies.”

For six months, Sulaymaniyah’s General Directorate of Health has supervised the burial of coronavirus victims, adhering to medical instructions and Islamic regulations.

1,117 people have died from the virus in Sulaymaniyah Governorate including Germyan and Raparin administrations. Only 210 to 215 of them have been interred in cemeteries designated for the pandemic’s victims. Now the relatives of the deceased bury their loved ones with the help of other people in the public cemetery; restoring a sense of normalcy to an otherwise extraordinary situation.

Abdulla Ahmed, Deputy Administrative Director of Sulaymaniyah Health Directorate, explained to Peregraf that global medical science does not yet fully understand coronavirus, “so based on a decision by the Ministry of Health of the Central Government, we arrived at an agreement with the World Health Organization that it would be acceptable to regulate the transfer of corpses to the relatives of the deceased provided they follow medical instructions.”

Ahmed added that so far, “around 4 to 5 persons have requested the exhumation of graves and in coordination with the governor, Municipality Presidency and Sulaymaniyah Asayish, we accepted their requests for the graves to be disinterred after 90 days of the burial, which is in accordance with medical regulations and Islamic Shari’a.”

There have been meetings between Sulaymaniyah Governor, General Directorate of Health, other related departments and the High Committee to Combat the Coronavirus in Sulaymaniyah concerning this issue. They decided that if 90 days have passed after the death of a coronavirus victim, the relatives of the deceased would be allowed to exhume the grave and move the body to another cemetery.

“The special cemetery is good and has no problem, it is just that the relatives of the deceased would like to return the body to his or her place of birth, and we permit it,” Sulaymaniyah Governor Haval Abubakr told Peregraf.

Although few graves have been exhumed, this undertaking is generally regarded as improper according to medical regulations and Islamic Shari’a.

Hassan Mufti, the Head of Fatwa Committee, explained the position of Islamic Shari’a on the issue: “[Exhumation] is only allowed when it is necessary. For example, when the plot is flooded and the grave sinks, when the corpse is exposed, when it is buried in a place owned by someone else, when the place is invaded, when the place belongs to someone who buried something in the ground, when the corpse is not properly washed and dressed, or when it has not been buried for a long time.”

Mufti says that under normal conditions, disinterment of a corpse is “bad if it is buried in a cemetery according to the Muslim tradition in accordance with Shari’a; there is no difference between the plots and one is not allowed to excavate the grave and transport the corpse.”

The transfer of corpses from the coronavirus graveyard to other cemeteries is happening only in Sulaymaniyah. The Ministry of Health has raised its concerns about the practice and is trying to abolish it.

Aso Hawezi, the spokesperson for the Ministry of Health, told Peregraf: “The independent administrations [of Germyan and Raparin] have been notified that this [procedure] is improper and would have bad consequences such as ‘follow-up’ requests. This practice is not very common in the Kurdistan Region.”

The process of exhuming and transferring the bodies was previously carried out by a medical staff and was governed by health regulations. Cases were even documented by the coroner.

Hawezi states that the independent administrations should take responsibility because the Ministry of Health cannot do everything: “We are in contact with related departments to bring an end to this problem.”

Even though the wound caused by the death of Ata Chawshin has not healed for Media Hussein, he is now satisfied that he and his friends were able take Chawshin’s body to its final destination.

Media Hussein says that he had been a friend of Atta Chawshin’s for 37 years and if he had been unable to transport him to Seywan Cemetery “it would have been impossible for my heart to heal.”

This investigative report was written by Lavin Mahmood for Peregraf as part of the Intensive Journalism Workshop funded by the German Foreign Office.