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Spread of coronavirus forces Jews and Muslims in France to abandon death rites

A picture taken on October 28, 2012, shows a rosary hung on a Muslim grave in the Muslim section at the municipal cemetery in Thiais, south of Paris.
A picture taken on October 28, 2012, shows a rosary hung on a Muslim grave in the Muslim section at the municipal cemetery in Thiais, south of Paris. AFP - KENZO TRIBOUILLARD

Families of coronavirus victims in France are foregoing traditional death and mourning rituals to stem the spread of Covid-19 infections. But for observant Muslims and Jews, the absence of these rites are an additional emotional burden at a difficult time. 

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Henri Kaim has faced grief and mourning up close for more than a decade. He runs a funeral home in Villeurbanne, a suburb of the eastern French city of Lyon, but has never had to deal with anguish and helplessness on the scale he’s witnessed since the coronavirus pandemic began exacting its deadly toll in France. 

His work these days feels like a never-ending race against time that puts additional strains on him and, more importantly, the grieving customers bidding farewells to their loved ones. "If people die in hospital, their bodies are put into covers and coffins immediately. Close family members in small groups of between two to five can view the deceased, but they only see a closed coffin,” he explained.

Sensitive to the families' pain, Kaim – who now works under layers of protective gear – tries to help them as best he can, by giving the bereaved a chance to say goodbye to their loved ones. "If they agree, I contact them via a Whatsapp call and put the phone next to the body so they can talk to them before the coffin is closed. I always walk away out of respect, but it's always hard to hear, 'Sorry mum, sorry dad, for not being there',” he recounts. 

The coronavirus pandemic has not only changed lives with enforced lockdowns and social distancing measures, it has also changed death – including access to deceased loved ones and the ability to perform final rites and rituals.

"Ever since human beings have been on Earth, we have been burying and performing mourning rituals for the dead. Every culture has them, and now we're being forced to stop them. It's going to cause anguish and great discomfort among the survivors for months and years to come," noted neurologist and psychiatrist Boris Cyrulnik in an interview with France Inter public radio last month. 

New rules, ancient explanations

After an initial delay, French authorities issued an official order on April 2 banning the washing, embalming and other forms of funerary preparations employed by many religious groups.

For observant Jews and Muslims, the new measures mean they cannot perform the traditional funeral rites for the dead, forcing religious leaders to adapt to Covid-19 cases while trying to reassure the faithful.

"Epidemic situations are not new to the Muslim faith,” said Mohammed Moussaoui, president of the French Council of Muslim Faith (CFCM), in an interview with FRANCE 24. “We had to inform the faithful of these exceptional rules.”

One of the most important is the suspension of rituals such as washing and preparing the body for burial. The argument for these suspensions, Moussaoui explained, is very simple: “It's the preservation of the life of the person who performs these rituals.”

The CFCM relied on a February 18 recommendation by France’s High Council for Public Health (HCSP) for its decision, Moussaoui said. "It’s very clear, the HCSP states that a person who dies from the coronavirus can contaminate those who touch the body. The risk was proven."

Although the HCSP subsequently relaxed its recommendations, the CFCM preferred to err on the side of caution, regardless of whether the deceased was a proven carrier of Covid-19 or not.

"What bothered us was that they allowed us to do the pre-funeral preparations of the body on the condition that we protect ourselves with goggles, helmet, protective clothing, gloves and be trained for this type of situation," said Moussaoui. “But we know very well that funeral personnel are not trained. There is a very precise protocol for putting on and taking off protective clothing to avoid the risk of contamination. In addition, we felt it was irresponsible to use protective material when healthcare staff were dealing with shortages.”

A lonely mourning  

For Richard Wertenschlag, chief rabbi of the Grande Synagogue of Lyon, the most important consideration is "to save human life".

"If there is a risk of contamination, we follow the advice of the government and doctors," he said. "We have banned gatherings for burials, and a maximum of 15 people can attend a funeral. Even the Sabbath, the holiest day in Judaism, can be violated if it is to save a human life.”

Wertenschlag also banned the traditional Jewish washing and preparation of the body due to contamination risks.

But beyond that, he explained, "a very important ritual in the Jewish religion" involves being with the dying and providing them comfort in their final moments.

"We must accompany the dying man. He must be surrounded by his loved ones, his family, like Patriarch Jacob – who gathered his children and grandchildren before leaving this world. Even after death, we must not abandon the deceased. There is a funeral wake where we chant and read the psalms in turn. There is an accompaniment until the burial," Wertenschlag explained.

“Right now, there are no gatherings. For the burial, 10 men are needed to say Kaddish, the prayer of sanctification. If there aren't 10 men, you can't say Kaddish."

The traditional Jewish mourning period lasts 11 months and features numerous rituals that are not possible these days. "We have closed synagogues and there are no services at home to avoid contamination,” Wertenschlag said.

It imposes a solitude on mourning, adding another level of hardship at a difficult time.

"Those who die due to epidemics are raised to the rank of martyrs," said Moussaoui, explaining that in Islam, war martyrs who die on the battlefield are not bathed and prepared for burial the normal way but are buried wearing their battle clothes. “Only the funeral prayer is said." 

It’s a vision shared by Judaism but with a few differences. "They are martyrs of this disease," said Wertenschlag. “Everything we've done so far can be swept away, in a few seconds, by a virus, even an invisible one. We have to question ourselves in order to create a new, more peaceful, more positive world and remember the fundamental principle that man was created in the image of God."

Final resting place

Most of France's coronavirus "martyrs" will also have to be buried here due to the suspension of international flights to contain the contagion.

Although many immigrants would like to be laid to rest in their countries of origin, such wishes are now hard to fulfill. "As far as I know, the deceased of Turkish origin can still be repatriated since there is a cargo flight system. Algeria, it seems, is in the process of setting up such a system and Morocco is looking into the issue. Repatriation is therefore sometimes possible, but without the family," said Moussaoui.

This raises the question of grave plots in communal cemeteries. Muslim graves must be oriented towards Mecca. But, Moussaoui notes, only 600 out of France's 35,000 municipalities offer grave sites for Muslim burials.

About 10 percent of French Jews ask to be buried in Israel. But Kaim – who started his funeral service to address a shortage of Jewish undertakers in his area before expanding his service to all religious groups – refuses to "take the risk", as he put it.

"Some of them go through Liège [in Belgium] or Turkey. I don't work like that. The Israeli consulate demands certain preservation treatments that cannot be done in reality and which, in any case, are forbidden by our religion." 

‘We’re going to bury my father like a dog’

Another issue is that of cremation, a taboo for observant Jews and Muslims. There have been rumours that France would impose such measures, fueled by reports of mass cremations in China and allegations that these cremations enabled Beijing to mask the true extent of the coronavirus death toll. 

But those fears were addressed on March 23 when French President Emmanuel Macron, in a video conference with religious leaders, categorically ruled out resorting to mass cremations.

Nevertheless, the rate of burials coupled with official coronavirus directives is putting Kaim and other funeral directors under tremendous pressure. "One of my customers told me, 'We're going to bury my father like a dog'. This service requires dignity and I don't like working like this, none of us were prepared for this," he sighed. “The families see us arrive with gloves, masks, white suits, like a forensic team ... it's awful.”

As public health officials warn that France is entering its peak before the much-anticipated flattening of the coronavirus curve, Kaim is braced for more difficult days.

"I have about 10 people 'on standby'... Families anticipating death because the doctors say it's the end,” he explained wearily. “It’s never been like this before.”

This article has been translated from the original in French.

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