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Syro-Malabar Church volunteers ignore virus risk to provide dignified burials in Indian state

The Syro-Malabar Catholic Church in the Indian state of Kerala establishing volunteer teams comprising priests, religious and laity willing to risk themselves so those who have died from COVID-19 can have a decent burial.

Fears of contracting the disease or with immediate family members under quarantine, a decent burial has invariably eluded many who have died from the disease that has killed more than 35,000 people in India. This is why the Syro-Malabar Church is forming volunteer burial teams, said Father Mathew Njavarakattu from Idukki Diocese in southern Kerala, the first Indian state to report a COVID-19 case in January.

The first volunteer team was established July 20 and was trained for burial service by the district Health Department.

“With this service we want to send across a message to people that even in your death we are with you,” said Father Njavarakattu who is the director of Kerala Catholic Youth Movement and a coordinator of a volunteer team in Idukki.

“The objective is not only to assist burials but also to help authorities in setting up first-line treatment centers and other facilities for prevention and control of the contagion,” he said.

The volunteers have also helped in sanitation services and providing ambulance drivers when a few of the Health Department’s drivers got infected.

Volunteers have conducted one burial and two cremations so far.

COVID-19 burial volunteers get ready for a funeral service. (Photo supplied by Tomin Augustine Koonamparayil)
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Father Njavarakattu said the Health Department is teaching volunteers how to handle bodies strictly as per COVID-19 protocols.

“They are trained how to use PPE [Personal Protection Equipment] kits, how to carefully put on and how to fold the PPE after use. They were also schooled on how to handle the corpses,” he said.  

“There is no need to fear getting infected as the body is mummified with many layers of disinfected clothing,” he said.

The funerals will be undertaken under strict guidance of the local health departments.

“Services will transgress faith boundaries and be open to all,” he added.

Father Joseph Koluthuvellil, executive director of welfare services for the district of Ernakulam, said that 2,000 people have volunteered to help in 300 parishes in Kerala’s Thrissur, Ernakulam, Kottayam and Alappuzha districts.

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