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Burial traditions clash with Coronavirus fears in the Middle East

Religion and customs across the Middle East and part of South Asia, that require speedy burials in the largely Muslim region have clashed with fears of COVID-19, the illness caused by the virus, and government-mandated lockdowns.

As the regional death toll surpasses 4,500, ancient rituals — bodies solemnly washed by relatives, wrapped in white shrouds and buried as quickly as possible with large crowds of mourners in attendance — are being disrupted by the growing outbreak.

In Egypt, where funerals were once an affair bringing dozens of families together in prayer, are now held with faces covered in masks.

Religious customs are also being upended in Iran, Pakistan and majority-Jewish Israel, where swift burials and large crowds of mourners are also a tradition.

The World Health Organization says in guidelines similar to those issued during the Ebola epidemic that handling of the dead should be minimal and that trained medical teams should perform burials.

In the Middle East, this often means religious rites must be modified or canceled.

Once disinfected, the corpse is wrapped in a plastic bag, then carried to a grave site with pallbearers wearing protective gear. The body is interred in a grave sprinkled with lime and buried in concrete.

In Egypt, no one is allowed to attend the washing rite except health workers, and those present must wear protective gear and keep at a one-meter distance from the body.

Further east, in Pakistan, families are allowed to take the bodies to graveyards in their villages but not inside their homes, which is a tradition in the South Asian country.

In Iraq, where over 60 people have died from the virus, some bodies waited several weeks for interment as government epidemic protocols sparked public vitriol.

Baghdad and other provinces initially identified remote burial plots on the peripheries of cities. But families argued that burying their loved ones in such sites was undignified; most Iraqis inter their dead in cemeteries near holy shrines where they can return to pay homage.

Some families spurned the government’s rules entirely. In one instance, relatives snatched two corpses from an unwitting medical team near Baghdad ahead of burial and sped off, according to a police report on March 28. The bodies were later recovered.