With the death toll from the virus continuing to climb, Church leaders have authorized cremations even though the burial practice is viewed locally as a Hindu custom, not a Christian one.
Amid increasing deaths from India’s worsening COVID-19 pandemic, the local Church is reluctantly opting for cremation instead of traditional Christian burial for the victims.
India’s daily COVID-19 death toll crossed 1,000 on Aug. 9 for the first time, along with more than 62,000 new cases, giving India the dubious distinction of recording the most number of cases in the world that day.
Though canon law permits cremation, Christians in India seldom cremate the dead, as it is widely considered a Hindu custom. The Catechism of the Catholic Church also states, “The Church permits cremation, provided that it does not demonstrate a denial of faith in the resurrection of the body” (2301). And the ashes must be buried.
So Bishop Anaparambil held an emergency meeting and granted permission for the first cremation when an elderly Catholic parishioner of Mararikkulam died of COVID-19 July 28.
“I had no fear. But I was worried how the people would react if a body was cremated in the parish cemetery,” Father Bernard Panikkaveettil, vicar of St. Augustine’s parish, who led the funeral, told the Register.
After the body was cremated at an open space in the cemetery, he oversaw the collection of the ashes into an urn and their burial in the cemetery with formal prayers.
“The people have accepted the decision without any criticism. They know there is no alternative in the present situation,” Father Panikkaveettil said.
In fact, following this Christian cremation that generated substantial news coverage, several other Christian denominations also declared that wherever Christian burial was not possible as per public-health protocol, local congregations could resort to cremation. These included Orthodox, Jacobite and Protestant churches.