'We keep going': Malaysia volunteer group doubles efforts to ensure proper burial for COVID-19 victims
KUALA LUMPUR: With the COVID-19 death toll mounting in Malaysia, a volunteer group led by a religious teacher has doubled its efforts to lend a hand to Muslim families who are often at a loss in navigating health protocols and a proper burial for their loved ones.
“What many people do not know is the amount of time and work that goes into managing a funeral. At a crucial time like this, having the right contacts is very necessary for a smooth funeral process," said Mr Muhammad Rafieudin Zainal Rasid, who spearheads the Malaysian Funeral Management Squad (SPJM).
“The reality is that people are already devastated and heartbroken from the loss of their loved one. The last thing they want to be doing in that mental state is to call cemeteries to see if they could allow another burial or struggle to keep up with standard operating procedures (SOPs),” he said when interviewed by CNA.
Mr Muhammad started SPJM around five years ago. It has since grown to around 2,000 volunteers nationwide.
He explained that following the death of a family member due to COVID-19, hospitals go only as far as informing the next of kin. Sometimes, the hospitals will share contact details of funeral management services.
“With the number of things they (hospitals) have to manage, this is understandable. Thereafter, the management of the entire process is left to the family, and often they are clueless on what to do next.
“This is where we step in. As soon as a family contacts us for assistance, we begin to do the needful to ensure a proper burial,” he said.
He said that before the current wave of COVID-19 cases, SPJM managed up to three burials per day. Now, it takes on more than five cases daily.
On Tuesday (Jun 8), Malaysia recorded 5,566 new COVID-19 cases and 76 deaths. Cumulatively, there are now 627,652 cases nationwide, with 3,536 deaths.
THE FUNERAL PROCESS
Mr Muhammad said that once a family who has lost someone to COVID-19 contacts his team for assistance, they will as far as possible oversee the entire preparation process, so as allow the family more space to mourn.
SPJM would collect all relevant information, including the place of residence and details of the deceased. It would also make a police report, contact cemeteries in the vicinity to book a grave and apply for a grave permit.
The volunteers would also go to the hospital, meet with a health inspector and transport the body to the cemetery.
"We do not encourage the family to be at the grave given the risks associated with COVID-19, but sometimes upon their insistence, we allow a few healthier men from the family to join,” said the 30-year old.
He said that there have been instances of hiccups when trying to book a grave. He explained that out of around 40 Muslim cemeteries in the Klang Valley, only eight accepted those who died of COVID-19. There are also quotas on how many bodies can be accepted daily.
“If they have maxed out their quota for the day, then the management will not accept the request to bury and we will have to approach other cemeteries. Eventually, if all cemeteries are unable to take the body, we will have to wait another day."
“Most of these cemeteries have space, that is not the issue. They have a quota because in the Klang Valley, cemeteries operate during office hours. Although we have requested for this to be reconsidered in light of the pandemic, there has not been any changes,” he said, adding that the time limit only applied in the Klang Valley as his volunteers in other states have not encountered similar situations.
If the cemeteries in Klang Valley did not change their policy on their timing, there would soon be a backlog of bodies in the morgues, he opined.
Muslim burials are usually done within 24 hours of death.
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When asked by CNA, the Federal Territories Islamic Religious Department (JAWI) said there is sufficient space at the 29 Muslim cemeteries in Kuala Lumpur for now.
"From our records, we can say that the space in the cemeteries would last for at least another decade," said a spokesperson.
Similarly, the Selangor Religious Department also said there is no shortage of space in the state's Muslim cemeteries.
Back at the SPJM’s headquarters in the Klang Valley, Mr Muhammad said his team usually requires about two to three hours to handle the burial of each COVID-19 victim. Much of their time, however, is spent on waiting for the arrival of the health inspector and for his approval to release the body.
Mr Muhammad said there are 20 people overseeing SPJM’s operations with about four or five volunteers are usually deployed to fetch each body and then accompany it to the cemetery for burial.
“The team in the body van will be in full personal protective equipment (PPE) throughout the journey and once they reach the grave, the family members who have been allowed to assist (the burial) also have to wear their PPE. All this takes time."
“The difference between COVID-19 and non-COVID-19 bodies is that we do not conduct the usual washing ritual on the former. Instead, we conduct the ‘tayamum’, a washing ritual involving purified sand, to cleanse the body. And instead of using the usual white cloth to wrap the body, it is wrapped in plastic," he said.
"Finally, we do a quick prayer and bury the body,” he said, adding that this would take no more than 30 minutes.
Mr Muhammad then said following the burial, the health inspector would monitor the removal of the PPE donned by all those involved and ensure proper sanitisation takes place.
Those who engage SPJM only need to pay what they can for the services. Mr Aizat Mohd Khairuddin, 29, a volunteer with SPJM said: "Although we do have a template on the costing, we do not really stick to it. At the moment we carry out our services with the most minimal costs we possibly can give."
"We do tell the families the cost at the start, those who can pay do so. As for others who really cannot, we just tell them to give what they can and we serve them in hope of alleviating their pain of losing a loved one," he added.
“WE ARE TIRED BUT WE REALLY WANT TO HELP”
What drives Mr Muhammad?
He felt that he had to do something after he saw people having to borrow money to carry out funeral rites for their family members.
“There are some people who make managing funerals into a business and charge people exorbitantly for their services. When I was younger, I used to help my teacher manage funerals. During that time I saw that many people were forced to borrow money or even take loans.
“That was my turning point, or wake-up call rather, to help as many struggling people while also training as many youths in my community to manage funerals in their own families,” he recounted.
According to Mr Muhammad, SPJM knew it would need to step up, even during the early days of the pandemic.
“I took note of what was happening in other countries ... so as the death toll began to overwhelm the system, we stepped in to help.
“I will not lie, it is tiring. Physical exhaustion is one thing, but mental exhaustion of not only organising and managing but watching the families mourn for not being able to send off their loved one, it takes a toll on you, but we keep going” he said.
Similarly, Mr Aizat, who owns a transport business, said his wish to help those who have suffered a loss is higher than the exhaustion.
“We are tired but we really want to help."
Besides the fatigue, volunteers met opposition from their own families due to the risky nature of managing COVID-19 bodies, he said.
“But we need to do this, because otherwise, those who really cannot afford it (funeral management services), have no one,” he said.