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Personnel in protective suits prepare to move a body inside the crematory chambers at a crematorium facility in Manila. Photo: AFP

Families denied viewing of bodies before quick cremations in coronavirus-hit Philippines

  • Burial is the norm in the Catholic-majority nation
  • But due to the pandemic authorities are encouraging rapid cremations
Families of coronavirus victims in the Philippines are being denied traditional death rites in favour of hurried, impersonal cremations, with virus restrictions often meaning they are forbidden a last look at their loved ones.

It is a painful and disorienting process for both the families and crematory workers that has upended the Philippines’ intimate rituals of laying the dead to rest.

Burial is the norm in the Catholic-majority nation, and it usually follows a days-long display of the embalmed body at home or in a chapel.

But due to the pandemic authorities are encouraging rapid cremations – though quick burials are still allowed – of suspected or confirmed Covid-19 deaths.

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Wakes are barred in these cases and hospitals must seal remains in plastic and send them directly to crematories or funeral homes.

Before the virus struck, families opting for cremation were able to have one last look at their loved one before the body was consigned to the flames.

Now workers have to gently explain the regulations denying even that to distraught relatives.

“We tell them we can’t do it because it’s dangerous. We could all get infected,” 54-year old worker Romeo Uson, sweat-soaked in a protective suit at a Manila crematorium, said.

Children run past used caskets at a crematorium facility in Manila. Photo: AFP

“It’s also painful for us,” he added. “We can’t let the families mourn the dead like before.”

His facility has been conducting six to seven cremations a day, double the usual number, since contagion from the virus started to take off in March.

The Philippines has detected over 9,200 infections and officially recorded 607 deaths, though due to a limited testing capacity the numbers are thought to be higher.

Leandro Resurreccion IV, 26, wasn’t allowed to visit his father as he was dying from the virus in hospital, and never saw his corpse – just the plastic he was wrapped in.

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“I think the fact that … my family wasn’t able to say goodbye could probably be the second most tragic thing that happened after my dad’s death,” he said.

“It makes the grief slower,” he added.

The anonymous process – all the body bags look alike – has even fed doubts that the urn at home contains his father’s ashes.

To his knowledge, Resurreccion’s family had always buried its dead, and the cremation of his father led to disagreement among relatives about whether the urn should be kept at home or interred.

The distant and impersonal process means crematory workers have to help comfort relatives who would normally have mourning rituals like wakes and family gatherings for support.

“I tell them to pray. You should pray because that is the vitamins of the dead,” said worker Romeo Elevaso.

His colleague, Uson, said they apologise to the families for the restrictions and try to lighten the atmosphere with stories and smiles.

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Relatives understand the extraordinary nature of the pandemic, and accept that they won’t ever see their loved one’s faces again, he said.

As well as the tough work of consoling relatives, the crematory workers also live with the fear of getting sick themselves.

Local authorities have urged them to take the hottest baths they can stand after work and to take vitamins and ginseng, which they claim can boost their immune systems.

Elevaso follows that advice and also scrubs his body with rubbing alcohol before returning to his family after every shift.

“For us, taking vitamins and saying prayers are important,” he said.

This article appeared in the South China Morning Post print edition as: Cremation traumatises in virus-hit Philippines