Zoom prayers for grieving families are the new normal

24th Apr 2020

Cllr Rabina Khan

Whilst the Government’s amendment for councils to respect the wishes of the deceased and their families is welcomed, the Covid-19 pandemic still presents the problem of a lack of burial space and the subsequent withholding of bodies.

This pandemic continues to blight the country and London has been the hardest hit, not least the BME community due to the high incidence of diabetes and hypertension, and residents living in overcrowded, multigenerational households in densely populated areas.

This has placed extraordinary pressure on funeral directors, and available burial space and demand will soon exceed current resources. Nevertheless, the GLA is still not sure what they will do when this happens, nor have they given residents peace of mind by providing a contingency plan.

In response to a letter from GLA Member Caroline Pidgeon, questioning whether the Capital was ready for the potential of an increase of burials, Deputy Mayor for Fire and Resilience, Fiona Twycross, replied: “The dignity of a deceased person, consideration of their faith and personal wishes are at the heart of the SCG’s planning of this unprecedented situation which presents many challenges and is changing every day.

As you will know from our discussions, I cannot, as yet, answer all your questions in full as the issues you have raised represent much of the work of the Mortality Management Sub-Group at present.”

Mohammed Rakib from Tower Hamlets sadly lost his elderly aunty to Covid-19. He told The Muslim News: “My aunt had been an asthma sufferer all her life and was admitted to hospital a few weeks ago where she was kept in for observation. Within hours of being sent home, she started displaying symptoms of Covid-19. She was readmitted to a hospital, where it was confirmed that she had contracted Covid-19 (most probably during her previous hospital stay). My aunt’s immediate family, her children and grandchildren were not permitted to see her, so she died alone just 4 days after testing positive.

“Lockdown measures and the new policy at cemeteries prevented us from attending her funeral. Her burial took place 2 weeks after she passed because her local registry office was struggling to issue death certificates. Today, family members who lived with her are in self-isolation, having contracted Covid-19 themselves. They are suffering alone, dealing with their grief and the additional anguish of having to wait 2 weeks to lay my aunt to rest.

“Friends and neighbours have also lost relatives and I now have another aunt in hospital suffering from Covid-19. At this time of such unimaginable loss and suffering, we must all find a way to use it to refocus our efforts on helping others.”

Although cemeteries are doing what they can to cope with the increased demand on their services, their staffs are still exposed to the risk of catching Covid-19 and when they do, this will create additional pressure on service provision.

One Muslim resident was advised by the Garden of Peace that they are under immense pressure due to the high number of deaths in the Muslim community, with two Imams currently unwell and only one leading the prayers. There are only two funeral directorates who are approved to carry out funeral arrangements: Brick Lane Funeral Service and Compassionate Service.

There is a backlog of funerals, and the Garden of Peace is no longer accepting burials from Tower Hamlets as their available space will soon be exhausted.

Even before the Covid-19 outbreak, London still faced challenges concerning burial provision. The Audit of London Burial Provision used projections to model demand for burial space from 2010-2030, but this was based on predicted deaths at the time. Boroughs with a larger proportion of Jewish people and Muslims face increasing pressure for burial space and tend to seek just one interment in each grave.

To manage the increasing number of bodies in an orderly and dignified way, and to avoid the tragic circumstances that we have witnessed in Italy, councils in both London and nationwide cannot afford to sit idly until the situation has become out of hand. Some councils are already planning for the increase.

Taunton Deane Crematorium, for example, is preparing additional burial plots and Falmouth Council is building new graves in advance because “It is always best to be prepared for the worst.” In the West Midlands, there has been a spike in the number of coronavirus-related deaths, particularly amongst Black and South Asian communities.

Shaykh Ahmad Faruq Siddiqi, Chaplain at the Royal London Hospital, has been the go-between of families and their loved ones in hospital, providing prayer, comfort and preparing families for the inevitable.

He told The Muslim News, “I see many patients alone and families desperate to be with their loved ones. I’ve provided advice and support on end-of-life care issues as well as funeral arrangements. Families have been left devastated by not being able to be with their loved ones at the time of death and the time of burying. Never did I believe that I would facilitate Zoom prayers between family members, myself and their loved ones in the last moments of life.”

Resolving any of these issues would require significant work in normal times but live under the shadow of Covid-19 is anything but normal. Communities and families need reassurances from the Government and authorities that they will expedite answers to the hard problems that face those dealing with death and burials.

Cllr Rabina Khan
Special Advisor to Liberal Democrat Leader in the House of Lords

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