Monday, January 17, 2022 - 15 Jumada al-Akhirah 1443

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Burying COVID-19 Decedents in Caskets

What is the ruling for burying those who die from the COVID-19 virus in specially prepared caskets to prevent the spread of infection to others? 

Answer

This issue needs to be broken down into two legal objectives to reflect first, protecting the living by preventing their infection and second, honoring the dead by burial.

God Almighty has sanctioned burying and concealing the bodies of the dead to contain the odor emanating from the corpses and prevent them from being preyed upon by wild animals, indicating the respect and honor given to the human body after death. He says, “From the earth We created you, and into it We will return you, and from it We will extract you another time” and “Have We not made the earth a container of the living and the dead?”

Jurists have maintained that the minimum legal criteria required for any form of grave is that it conceal the mortal remains of the dead and the odor emanating from them and ensure that they are not tampered with.

One of the five universal objectives of Islamic law is the protection of lives and, in this context, the main aspect of this protection is the prevention of harmful diseases and fatal epidemics. Islamic law consequently cautions against contagious diseases and exhorts efforts to contain them. It also introduced pioneering preventive methods in observance of the universal objectives and preventing danger to the entire society.

First, with regards to the first of these objectives in the context of COVID-19, is the concern over cross-contamination hazards from COVID-19 decedents. COVID-19 has been proven to be a highly contagious disease that is spread from one person to another either through the respiratory droplets released from an infected person or through mixing with and direct contact with an infected person without taking the precautionary measures. According to the Field Manual for the Management of Dead Bodies issued by the Pan American Health Organization, some contagious diseases continue to pose cross-contamination hazards even after the death of the infected person and that only trained and professional personnel are to handle dead bodies during an epidemic. The manual also states technical recommendations for body handlers to protect them from occupational risks associated with the contagion such as placing bodies in specially designed body bags and then placing them in coffins according to the respective customs and cultures before taking them to the cemetery for burial.

The preventive medicine sector at the Egyptian Ministry of Health stipulates the necessity of washing and shrouding the dead and transporting them to their graves in body bags optimized against leaks and with clear hazard warning signs. Further stipulations include:

- Having the minimum possible number of people at the funeral car.

- Placing the body in a reusable sealed casket that will be later cleaned and disinfected.

- Having the people attending the funeral wear appropriate personal preventive equipment such as gloves and masks.

- Refraining from opening the casket during the funeral prayer for any reason.

- Having the minimum possible number of people inter the body in its place of burial.

- Strictly complying with the proper hygiene after the burial procedures.

- Disinfecting all surfaces that come in contact with the body.

Based on this, it is permissible to bury COVID-19 decedents in coffins since a coffin burial is no more than a means to meet the above-mentioned objectives.

Second, according to Islamic law, the dignity of the dead must be respected by all possible means. While Islamic burial rituals do not prescribe coffin burials, this does not mean that they violate the dignity and sanctity of the dead. Taking an interest and need-based approach to this issue, jurists have permitted the deployment of all means necessary to ensure airtight sealing of coffins. They consequently allow coffin burials whether the casket is made of wood, concrete, or iron. Imam Ibn al-Haj, the Maliki scholar, maintained the permissibility of coffin burials especially if the earth in which the deceased is to be buried is soft. According to Ibn Hajar al-Haytami, although coffin burials are disliked based on scholarly consensus, they are nevertheless deemed permissible when there are justifications to prioritize them. These include moist or soft earth, the risk of animals digging up the graves, or the earth itself is unstable and the only means to preserve the body is to place it in a coffin.

It is permissible to bury the dead in coffins that protect the bodies of the dead and safeguard their dignity and sanctity. In addition, coffin burials protect those present during burial from infection spreading from the dead to the living. The scholarly verdict of dislike must not dissuade the public from coffin burials since it has been established that such a verdict is overridden by the minimum need. If this is so, then a fortiori, a necessity associated with the preservation of lives.

Finally, it is necessary to follow the instructions and preventive procedures issued by the relevant authorities regarding dead body management in the context of infectious disease transmission.

And God almighty knows best.