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Amidst the ongoing global pandemic, there are numerous problems which are emerging every day across the country. One such problem is the denial of burial to the body of a person, who has succumbed to the infection caused by COVID-19. There have been a number of incidents where the residents of the area, near which the dead body of an infected person is to be buried have objected the burial on the fear of the spread of coronavirus. One such incident took place in Meghalaya, where the inhabitants opposed and denied cremation of a 68 year old medical practitioner in the crematorium. But the incident which shook the country, was the denial of a dignified burial to a 55 year old doctor, in two cemeteries in Chennai. Not only was the burial denied, but the angry local residents attacked the officials and medical staff accompanying the body with stones and vandalized the ambulance van in which the remains of the doctor were kept. It is disappointing to see the occurrence of such incidents due to the misinformation spread among people about the COVID-19 virus, even after an advisory being issued by the Ministry of Health and Family Welfare (MoHFW) for addressing any social stigma associated with COVID-19 and advising not to target the essential services providers and their families.     
Suo Motu W.P. No. 7492 of 2020
After the above mentioned incident was reported, the Madras High Court took suomotu cognizance of the matter as a Public Interest Litigation (Suo Motu W.P.No. 7492 of 2020). The Court notably mentioned the guidelines issued by the MoHFW on any stigma attached to COVID-19 and the management of the dead body of a person, at any stage, who succumbed to the virus. The court observed that, this knowledge is available in public domain and hence it is expected that the people are aware of the fact that if the procedures for dead body management are followed properly, then it is unlikely for the virus to spread through a dead body and hence it does not pose a threat to the residents of the area where the body is buried. Some of the important guidelines, as issued by the MoHFW for the same are as follows:
  • Any person attending to the dead body, should follow proper hand hygiene and use the PPE (Personal Protective Equipment) properly, in the mortuary or the burial ground.
  • If a family of the patient wishes to view the body, they may be allowed, but must adhere strictly to the standard precautions.
  • Body should be kept in a leak proof plastic body bag and the exterior of the same should be decontaminated by using 1% hypochlorite.
  • Embalming of body not allowed.
  • Autopsies to be avoided.
  • The burial or crematorium ground staff should be sensitized.
  • Religious rituals and last rites which do not require touching of body can be allowed. 
  • Ashes do not pose any risk and can be collected for last rites.
  • Large gathering at the burial ground should be avoided and social distancing should be followed.
The court while citing the case of Kharak Singh v. State of U.P. &Others((1964) 1 SCR 332), stated that the term ‘life’ as used under Article 21 of the Constitution of India means more than mere animal existence and it equally prohibits the mutilation of the body or any organ of the body which helps the soul to communicate to the outer world. The court, thus condemning the shameful alleged acts of the people, because of which a person practicing a noble profession of a doctor was denied the right to be buried in a cemetery, held that the Right to Protection of Life and Personal Liberty under Article 21, includes the ‘right to have a decent burial’.  
The court also threw light upon Section 297 of the Indian Penal Code, which makes ‘Trespassing on burial places’ a punishable offence. It states that, a person:
  • who with the intention of wounding the feelings of any person or insult the religion of any person,
  • trespasses any place of worship or sepulcher, or any place set apart for the performance of funeral rites or depository for the remains of the dead, or
  • offers any indignity to a human corpse or causes any disturbance to any persons assembled for the performance of funeral ceremonies,
shall be imprisoned with a term which may extent to one year, or with fine, or both. Thus, by the virtue of this section, any person who objected and denied the burial of the doctor and vandalized the van and injured the officers and staff accompanying the body, are liable to be punished.  
Apart from the guidelines issued by the MoHFW, I would also like to state certain recommendations issued by the World Health Organization on ‘Infection Prevention and Control for the safe management of dead body in the context of COVID-19’, to assert that the virus cannot spread through the dead body of a person who died from COVID-19. They are as follows:
  • To date there has been no evidence of any person being infected by exposure to the body of a person who has died of the virus.
  • They can either be cremated or buried.
  • Disposal of a body in haste to be avoided and the dignity of the dead and their family members should be respected.
  • Family members can view the body, adhering to the standard precautions, but cannot kiss, touch or hug the body.
  • Adults above the age of 60, children and people who are immunosuppressed should not directly interact with the body.
This incident attracted a lot of criticism from every corner of the country. It is extremely shameful to see such incidents, where the frontline workers who are providing essential services at the time of this crisis and are working by putting their lives in danger, are being ill-treated and attacked. Outraged by the denial of burial to a doctor, Vice president of India, M. Venkaiah Naidu, termed it as a “blot on the society’s consciousness”, he also said that there is an urgent need to remove such misconceptions about COVID-19 and educate people about the same, so that such inhuman incidents can be completely avoided. It is the need of the hour, that every citizen respects and recognizes the work done and the efforts put by the frontline workers in the country, and do everything to make their work easier and not hurt their dignity and respect. Also it is the duty of every citizen to educate people about the guidelines being issued by the MoHFW time and again, who are not aware of them on account of non-access to the internet or social media, so that any misconception and fear can be removed before it turns into something grave.



Apurwa Shah has completed her LL.M. with specialisation in Human Rights from Symbiosis Law College, Pune and has an inclination towards research in the fields of Constitutional Law and Human Rights.   




In Content Picture Credits: livelaw.in

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