The sad story of Sri Lanka’s forced cremations
My Achchi planned her funeral for years. It was important to her. On the day, all the monks came, the politicians, the whole village, carloads of people from Colombo. She would have been happy. Even though she wasn’t there, what do we know? It was important to her, and she was important to us.
COVID-19 buried another grandmother yesterday, from my wife’s family. The family had no time to plan, but they were able to be there. She was in double body-bags but they were there. I don’t know what she would have wanted, but at least the family was together. It was a dignified way to go. But only because they were OK with cremation. It’s not a choice in Sri Lanka, and it’s not science. It’s a weapon.
Muslims are not OK with cremation. It is not what they want to do with their bodies. In every other country you can choose burial, but Sri Lanka — out of racist spite — did not allow this. After intense pressure they finally allowed burials, but on a remote island, away from family and friends forever. The government will literally spend more time and money just to let Muslims know that they’re not welcome here. It’s pure spite. This doesn’t desecrate Muslims, who I’m sure will be forgiven. It desecrates our national soul.
Given the great fear we all have of death and the afterlife, this must be terrifying. It is nothing but an act of terror. The Sri Lankan government has used COVID-19 to terrorize Muslims. It is a shame to all Sri Lankans. If we violate the dead, how can we even show our face around the living?
I love Sri Lanka, but today I am furious, saddened, and deeply ashamed.
Sri Lanka’s current government came to power on Sinhala-supremacism, backed by a series of big lies. The first lie was that Muslims are terrorists, when in fact they tried to warn us about extremists for years. The second was that Muslims were sterilizing Sinhalese women, through drugged rotis and sneaky surgeries. The latest lie is that dead bodies could infect us, and therefore they must be forcibly burned.
This isn’t true. None of this is true. Safe burials are happening literally everywhere else in the world. This is just COVID turned into a weapon of division and abuse and used against a minority community. Sinhalese have one more privilege now. The privilege to die with dignity. Muslims have been told ever so clearly that they are not welcome here. That they can go to hell. But it is their abusers that are damned.
For Muslims burial is important. For Buddhists and Christians (the other main communities), not so much. Exploiting this difference, the government is using dying from COVID as a political wedge issue. It’s completely shameless, and brings international shame upon the nation. And we deserve it. What monsters desecrate the dead?
For over a year now, every Muslim victim of COVID-19 has been forcibly cremated. Even young babies, cremated without even a confirming PCR test. We are literally lighting bodies on fire when THE FAMILIES DO NOT WANT THAT. I cannot begin to explain how depraved this is, and how deeply traumatic. I hope you understand. I actually don’t write about Sri Lankan issues much, but in this case I am just so deeply ashamed.
Burials Are Safe
The scientific fact is that burying COVID victims is fine. The proof is numerous, but most obviously that everyone else does it. We haven’t discovered some new vector of groundwater transmission in Sri Lanka, only a particularly virulent form of racism.
In the UK, Muslims are even able to wash the body in full PPE and are provided pastoral care, quick death certificates, and something that goes without mentioning because it’s so basic. Burial.
This is basic because COVID cannot exist outside a living host. It’s a virus, it needs living cells to survive. When the body passes so does it. For burials the body is sealed and that’s it. You still have to take great care in burial, but it’s the same as for cremation. Only the destination is different. Once in the ground, the body doesn’t contaminate groundwater anymore than a normal body would. Just follow the basic WHO guidance, and it’s fine, ask over a million grieving families worldwide. You can bury your dead, with dignity and respect.
Sri Lanka, unique among nations, just doesn’t. Only Sri Lanka desecrates the dead like this. They have used COVID to terrorize the Muslim population, and are now turning bad to worse.
Death Is Not Exile
In response to international pressure, the government backtracked and said burials would be allowed, and people cheered. This was premature. The government allowed burials, but only on remote, mostly Tamil, land. They still could not let the dead rest in peace. They are still using human bodies as racist weapons, this time trying to divide the minorities.
The main burial site is supposed to be the remote island of Iranthivu, which residents have only recently clawed back from Navy occupation. The locals there filled up the dug graves and issued a statement. Not one of racism or division. Of solidarity.
I couldn’t say it any better. Burial is not just a hole in the ground. You can’t just transport bodies place to place. These are loved ones. They belong to someone. They belong somewhere.
I’m not often ashamed of Sri Lanka, but this time we’re unbelievably wrong. The Muslim people forcibly cremated will surely be forgiven, but what rebirth awaits those that desecrate the dead? We have terrifying temple paintings in Sri Lanka. We should know.
Funerals are for the living
Funerals are for the living. I realized that sitting at my Achchi’s funeral, surrounded by her village, her priests, her politicians. We were at the center of all the rituals. They were for us. It was her final act of connecting to her people, her culture, and passing it all down to us. It is this final passage we have denied to our Muslim family. This condemns only us.
My family is Sinhala Buddhist, and I have never been more ashamed to call myself that. This government explicitly rules for people born like me; I can’t take the privileges and none of the blame. We are violating the dead. We deserve nothing but shame among the living. If you are Sri Lankan and you do not speak out, you will take this to your grave.