As Singapore sees more Covid-19 deaths than last year, what happens to the bodies of patients without families?

  • A rise in cases has put pressure on the city state’s funeral service industry to adjust to handling more Covid-19 deaths
  • Funeral workers and religious leaders stand in for family at wakes and cremations when there are no mourners

When it comes to death, veteran embalmer Dennis Pedrozo has seen it all in his 24 years of preserving bodies. But nothing prepared him for the Covid-19 pandemic, which has changed long-standing funeral practices.

While Singapore’s Covid-19 death toll remains one of the lowest in the world, there was a sudden spike in infections and deaths in October, following clusters linked to karaoke lounges and fishery ports.

Singapore recorded 30 Covid-19 deaths in the 14 months following the country’s first confirmed cases on January 23 last year. However, the Delta variant outbreak caused a surge in cases, with 391 deaths between April 1 and November 1.

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As of November 23, the city state had logged over 250,000 infections and 667 Covid-19 related deaths, according to the Ministry of Health.

As funeral parlours cope with the rising death toll, Pedrozo has had to trade his embalming tools for full-suit personal protective equipment (PPE) to transport deceased Covid-19 patients from hospitals to crematoriums.

As Singapore sees more Covid-19 deaths than last year, what happens to the bodies of patients without families?
© Provided by South China Morning Post While a non-Covid-19 patient may be placed in an open casket, Covid-19 patients’ coffins are airtight, with the glass completely sealed. Photo: Marielle Descalsota

Pedrozo works at Singapore Casket, one of the largest parlours in the country. The parlour handled around 140 to 150 deaths a month prior to the outbreak in early 2020. In October, it handled 190, manager Jeffrey Lee said.

Parlours are not allowed to embalm the bodies of Covid-19 patients, so they are double-bagged and sanitised.

When funeral workers collect the body, they neither see nor touch the body directly. The body is placed inside the coffin, which is then sealed with silicon to prevent any contamination to the hearse used to transport the body from the hospital to the crematorium.

As Singapore sees more Covid-19 deaths than last year, what happens to the bodies of patients without families?
© Provided by South China Morning Post To minimise the risk of infection, hearses, with any equipment used to transport the body, are sanitised. Photo: Marielle Descalsota

If a wake is held, family members must verify the identity of the deceased through a tag that is attached to the coffin, as only closed-casket funerals are allowed.

Due to sensitivities around Covid-19, some corpses were “abandoned”, said Lee.

“[Families] authorise us to claim the body without their presence, and even for the final rites at the crematorium they are not there,” he added.

How many deaths are acceptable in ‘zero-Covid’ economies?

“Some are scared of [contracting] Covid-19 and ask for the body to be cremated straight away [without wakes],” said Pedrozo, whose family owns an undertaker business in the Philippines.

The parlour performs funeral services free of charge for Covid-19 patients, with most cremated after a three-day wake.

As Singapore sees more Covid-19 deaths than last year, what happens to the bodies of patients without families?
© Provided by South China Morning Post While the deceased typically have coffins and hearses decorated with an abundance of flowers, caskets of Covid-19 patients are not allowed to be decorated for

Singapore’s National Environmental Agency has said that burials are allowed for special religious reasons.

In 2020, 82 per cent of the 22,000 people who died in Singapore were cremated, while only 18 per cent were buried. These numbers have remained stable throughout the past decade.

As Singapore sees more Covid-19 deaths than last year, what happens to the bodies of patients without families?
© Provided by South China Morning Post The nearly empty funeral hall is filled with silence until Buddhist chants begin. Photo: Marielle Descalsota

When no family member is present at a deceased Covid-19 patient’s funeral, religious figures such as monks usually volunteer to perform processions and rituals.

Shi Ming Qing, a Buddhist monk, volunteered to perform rituals for the deceased even before his ordination. The 52-year-old grew up in a family that volunteered to conduct processions for vulnerable people.

“It has taught me to live with gratitude and give back to the world by helping those in need, especially the underprivileged, the poor, and those without families,” said Shi, a monk of over 30 years.

As Singapore sees more Covid-19 deaths than last year, what happens to the bodies of patients without families?
© Provided by South China Morning Post Venerable Shi Ming Qing, with funeral assistant Jennifer Lee, conducts rituals for an 87-year-old Covid-19 patient. Photo: Marielle Descalsota

While most funerals have music and family members delivering eulogies, nobody attended the funeral of an 87-year-old Covid-19 patient on October 30, with the exception of Shi and two service workers. Government guidelines allow up to 30 people at wakes, burials, and cremations.

After the final procession, the coffin is collected by crematorium technicians wearing personal protective equipment who wheel the coffin into a cremation chamber. The cremation process takes four to five hours.

As Singapore sees more Covid-19 deaths than last year, what happens to the bodies of patients without families?
© Provided by South China Morning Post Families are allowed to see the cremation from a viewing deck in the crematorium. Photo: Marielle Descalsota

Practices concerning the after-death matters of Covid-19 patients differ around the region.

In the Philippines, local governments are tasked with ensuring that confirmed and suspected cases are cremated or buried within 12 hours of death. Funeral parlours and crematoriums risk losing their business permit if cadavers are refused.

Burial practices in India prescribe Hindus, Jains, and Muslims to be cremated and buried within 24 hours.

But in Muslim-majority countries like Indonesia, where most of the population adheres to Islamic burial traditions, very few opt for cremations. In Bogor, volunteers work to bury the deceased, at times without PPE. Malaysian volunteers also contribute to national efforts to navigate mounting death tolls, with citizen groups arranging burials and the transport of bodies to cemeteries.

Additional reporting by Nicole Descalsota

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This article originally appeared on the South China Morning Post (www.scmp.com), the leading news media reporting on China and Asia.

Copyright (c) 2021. South China Morning Post Publishers Ltd. All rights reserved.

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