I woke this morning to the above words, which in the current Covid-19 climate seems very insensitive yet at the same time is a very important topic for discussion for both social and environmental reasons.

In the world of living things, only humans hold funeral ceremonies and they represent an important part of collective behaviour in human societies. The way that humans respond to death varies according to cultural traditions, however, under modernisation it could be argued that the process by which bonds with the deceased are severed and reconstructed has shifted from communities to funerary service specialists and in the case of Covid-19 to Governments. [1]

In China’s Hubei province, where it all began, all farewells and ceremonies are banned as the Chinese Government cremates the Coronavirus deceased. Relatives are not able to even retrieve the remains of their loved ones and the ashes of the deceased are kept in the crematoriums. [2]

In New York, mass graves have been built in the middle of New York City where over 5,000 people to date have died from the virus in New York City alone. [3]

Traditionally burial was practised by the three Abrahamic religions and cremation was practised by eastern religions. Christians believe God created life as embodied life. The person is not simply a soul but a soul-body entity. That means the body is to be respected and the corpse is not a worthless container vacated by the essence of life. It is part of the person we once loved. The modern acceptance that the mind alone is the seat of identity explains the general acceptance of cremation. [4]

In the past and in modern day Australia, Aboriginal communities have used both burial and cremation to lay their dead to rest. Traditionally, some Aboriginal groups buried their loved ones in two stages. First, they would leave them on an elevated platform outside for several months. Then, once only the bones were left, they would take them and paint them with red ochre. The painted bones could then be crushed and placed in burial poles or trees, or buried or placed in a significant location in the natural landscape. However, in modern Australia, people with Aboriginal heritage are more likely to opt for a standard burial or cremation, combined with elements of Aboriginal culture and ceremonies. [5]

According to William Reville, a Professor of Biochemistry, today both burials and cremations can impact negatively on the environment. Burial leaves a small but significant footprint on the natural environment. Although cremation is more eco-friendly than burial, cremations burn much natural gas (a temperature of to 750 to 800 degrees must be maintained for 45 to 90 minutes) releasing greenhouse gases and vaporising other chemicals that may be present in the body such as mercury (dental fillings) and dioxins and furans. Emission of vaporised toxic mercury into the air is worrying. It returns to earth where it can convert to highly toxic methylmercury and contaminate various foods. [4]

The environmental impacts of Covid-19 are being highlighted through the functional actions of Government to isolate and contain the virus with both the living and the dead, yet the burial rituals that would normally address the social and psychological bonds between the living and the deceased are not able to occur. For many Aboriginal Peoples of Australia burial ceremonies have only been able to be held after the bones of their ancestors that were taken over one hundred years ago have been returned from museums and universities across the globe.. According to the Banuba people of the Kimberley, who repatriated their ancestors remains in 2010, “The feeling of closure, the feeling of satisfaction, the feeling of being able to correct something that has been done wrong, all those feelings are overwhelming”. [6]

For the people today who are impacted by the death of family and friends from Covid-19 there will be need to be ceremonies held to grieve and properly farewell the deceased. There is really no aspect of our modern human lives that we are currently not having to reconsider that take into account our human relationship with the environment, including the way we die and are buried.

[1] https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC6053984/

[2] https://www.reuters.com/article/us-health-coronavirus-china-cremation/no-farewells-no-ceremonies-chinas-hubei-cremates-coronavirus-dead-idUSKBN21G0YT

[3] https://7news.com.au/lifestyle/health-wellbeing/new-york-buries-dozens-in-mass-graves-on-hart-island-as-death-toll-from-coronavirus-increases-c-970605

[4] https://www.irishtimes.com/news/science/which-to-choose-burial-or-cremation-1.3355960

[5] https://www.funeralguide.net/help-resources/arranging-a-funeral/religious-funerals/aboriginal-funerals

[6] https://www.abc.net.au/news/2010-08-25/sacred-re-burial-of-aboriginal-remains/956934


Left above. Ramingining artists The Aboriginal Memorial 1987-88.

Right above. Remains of Banuba People returned to their descendants.