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In Sri Lanka, a unique pandemic trauma: Forced cremations

Municipal workers wait as they prepare to cremate the body of a coronavirus victim at a cemetery in Colombo, Sri Lanka, on Jan. 22. (Eranga Jayawardena/AP)
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In his grief, Mohamed Niyas cannot bring himself to tell his wife the truth.

She knows that their 2-month-old boy, who was born with a serious heart condition, died in January after being rushed to the hospital in their seaside town in Sri Lanka.

But he has not found the words to explain what happened next: Their son’s body was put into a small box wrapped in yellow plastic and cremated — against the family’s wishes — because doctors said the baby had tested positive for the coronavirus.

At the crematorium, a handful of relatives wept as they chanted a funeral prayer, overcome by the loss of the child and the added trauma of being unable to bury him according to Islamic tradition.

Such cremations have been a matter of official policy in Sri Lanka since March 2020, making it a global outlier in the pandemic. Guidelines from the World Health Organization say it is safe to bury victims of covid-19, but Sri Lanka nevertheless banned the practice, citing a risk to the water supply.

The policy of compulsory cremations has been a source of anguish for Muslims and Christians, both religious minorities in a predominantly Buddhist country. More than 200 Muslim coronavirus victims have been cremated, according to the Muslim Council of Sri Lanka. The country’s overall death toll is 409.

“We are being forced to go through this trauma,” said Niyas, 39, a painter who has been out of work for months. He called the government’s policy painful and unfair but felt powerless to challenge it. Rehaan Jayawickreme, a local politician, said he tried to intercede on the family’s behalf to stop the baby’s cremation, but police told him they had to follow orders.

Human rights groups have urged the Sri Lankan government to end the policy. The mandatory cremation of covid-19 victims amounts to a “human rights violation” that persecutes Muslims and other minorities, experts at the United Nations said last month. Measures to control the pandemic “must respect and protect the dignity of the dead.”

After facing growing criticism from abroad, Sri Lanka’s prime minister appeared to indicate in Parliament on Wednesday that the country would allow burials for covid-19 victims. But on Thursday, a state minister for health told the legislature that such a decision would rest with a government-appointed technical committee. The official notification implementing the cremation policy remains in force.

Sudarshini Fernandopulle, the state minister for health and coronavirus prevention, did not respond to requests for comment and written questions about the policy.

While many countries have put limitations on how funerals are conducted, Sri Lanka appears to be the only nation that has banned burials throughout the pandemic and made cremation compulsory for all victims of covid-19, regardless of their religion.

“There is no scientific basis to prohibit burial,” said Faizer Mustapha, the lead counsel for a petition challenging the policy before the country’s Supreme Court. “If there is no scientific basis, it has to be argued that it is discriminatory.”

Muslims make up roughly 10 percent of Sri Lanka’s more than 20 million people. In the wake of the 2019 attacks by Islamist extremists that left nearly 300 dead, the Muslim community has been the subject of violence, economic boycotts and conspiracy theories.

The election of Gotabaya Rajapaksa as president — a leader whose support comes from the majority Buddhist community — has stoked fears about the future of religious minorities in the country.

In December, the government asked an expert committee composed of nine Sri Lankan microbiologists and virologists to revisit the policies around the disposal of bodies of covid-19 victims. A copy of their final report, which has not been publicly released, was reviewed by The Washington Post. They recommended the policy be revised “to include both cremation and burial.”

The government ignored the recommendation. Two of the members of the panel, who spoke on the condition of anonymity due to fear of public criticism and a backlash from the government, said they were dismayed that their findings had no impact. “Scientific evidence does not win against the government’s agenda,” one of the members said.

Muslims who have lost relatives to covid-19 in Sri Lanka describe a traumatic rush by police and health officials to cremate the bodies of their loved ones. Many say they were not shown a copy of results showing that their family members had tested positive for the coronavirus and that hospital officials refused their pleas to conduct a second test.

Fathima Shakeela, a 50-year-old mother of three, died Dec. 14 at a hospital in Homagama, just outside the capital, Colombo, after testing positive for the coronavirus. Her husband, M.R.L. Nihmathulla, said hospital officials told him they would keep the body so he and his sons could see her one last time after they completed a mandatory quarantine.

Once the period was over, however, he called the hospital and learned that his wife’s body had already been cremated, he said. He requested her ashes to observe “final rites, even in that manner,” but said he was told it was too late to receive them. Janitha Hettiarachchi, the director of the hospital, said he did not remember Shakeela’s case, and he did not respond to written follow-up questions.

The couple’s youngest son is 10 and “still asks for his mother,” Nihmathulla said. “I don’t know how to fill the void.”

Ananda Galappatti, a medical anthropologist in Sri Lanka, said Muslims are being denied important mechanisms for coping with grief. “Cremation is felt to be a violation of faith, tradition and obligation to the deceased,” he said. The fears surrounding cremation will also make people less likely to report symptoms and get tested, Galappatti added.

“In Islam, God decides when we have to go,” said Hilmy Ahamed, vice president of the Muslim Council of Sri Lanka. But now, Muslims in Sri Lanka “have become paranoid about dying, because we don’t want to be cremated.” People are staying away from hospitals even if they’re sick, Ahamed said.

Nearly a year has passed since Mohamed Fayaz Joonus rushed his 73-year-old father to the hospital, where doctors said he tested positive for the coronavirus. Joonus watched helplessly as doctors failed to revive him. The next day, his father’s body was cremated without the family’s permission and Joonus went directly from the crematorium to a 14-day quarantine.

His father was the rock of the extended family, Joonus said, always ready with advice and encouragement. Now there is no grave to visit, no place to honor his father’s life on major religious festivals, as is the custom.

“He didn’t deserve that type of death,” Joonus said. He believes the forced cremation policy is the product of anti-Muslim discrimination. “I love this country,” he said. “But after this incident I don’t feel like being in Sri Lanka.”

Slater reported from New Delhi and Fonseka reported from Colombo, Sri Lanka. Amruta Byatnal in New Delhi contributed to this report.

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