Community members are calling for a more compassionate approach to funerals, especially in hard-hit Western Sydney, following a large police presence and the arrest of four men at Rookwood Cemetery.
NSW Police were called to the 314-hectare cemetery on Wednesday to a funeral that had more than 10 mourners in attendance.
There were two other burials happening in the same section of the cemetery at about the same time.
Under the public health orders, up to 10 people can attend indoor or outdoor funerals, but only if you are a spouse, partner, parent, child or sibling of the deceased person.
Anwar Elahmad from south-west Sydney was there visiting his father’s grave, but told the ABC one of the people being buried was his wife’s uncle, who had contracted COVID-19 around six weeks ago.
When police arrived, Mr Elahmad said he approached a senior officer to ask him to allow one of the three funerals, which was stalling, to go ahead.
“I informed him … that’s it’s our religious obligation to give our dead a speedy burial, and I pleaded him to use his discretion and allow the burial to go ahead,” he said.
“My mother-in-law, the sister of the deceased, was standing in the car park … she was also asked to leave, not even allowed to sit in our car and watch from the car and threatened with being arrested.
“That area is three or four football fields, so that area is vast, people spread out [but] police followed them and asked them to leave.”
Mr Elahmad felt the treatment he and other mourners experienced was “un-Australian”.
“I find it extremely unfair considering what happened at the beach the weekend before …no masks, no heavy handedness by police,” he said.
“You can’t help but feel we’re being treated unjustly … I find it disgusting and I find it un-Australian.
“There’s no compassion, no mercy, there’s no empathy for us … the majority of people dying are from our areas, why can’t they increase it to 15 or 20 [people] because we have very large families.”
NSW Police said officers from Auburn, Burwood, Bankstown and Campsie stations, as well as the riot squad, were sent to the cemetery following reports there were 80 to 100 people there.
In a statement, NSW Police said most people dispersed as asked, but four men refused and were arrested.
“Police worked with the family during this difficult situation. The family nominated the 10 people who could stay, the remaining attendees were asked to leave,” they said.
“The four men below refused to leave giving police no option but to arrest.”
Three of them were fined, while the fourth was charged with three counts of intimidating police and other offences, after allegedly abusing and threatening officers.
Community feel they’re being treated unfairly
President of the Lebanese Muslim Association, Samier Dandan, said he has written to the state government and the operators of the cemetery about the incident.
Mr Dandan said Western Sydney’s Islamic community had been hit extremely hard in this outbreak, and the Lebanese Muslim Association was currently facilitating two to three funerals a day, including those on Wednesday.
“Whether they bring 10 or 15 the issue that people can’t comprehend is the equality between what they saw on the weekend at Bondi and burying someone out in the open space,” he told the ABC.
“All the people at the cemetery were wearing masks, it’s an open space.
“There surely needs to be some sort of other exemptions we can offer these people, who haven’t seen their loved ones in weeks because they’re in hospital, they died in hospital because of COVID.”
Mr Dandan said enforcement of the 10-person funeral rule threatened to ruin the relationship that had been fostered between police and the Muslim community over many years.
“Not only were they grieving, they saw their relatives being put in police cars, being arrested,” he said.
In a statement, NSW Police said they had engaged with more than 200 senior religious and community leaders both in person and in virtual meetings during this pandemic.
“During welfare and compliance checks, officers have called ambulances, arranged food, organised additional welfare checks and even provided hay to feed animals, to members of the community as part of their taskings,” they said.
“Many thousands of care and welfare packages have been delivered to vulnerable community members and NSW Police Force will continue to provide extra support during this difficult time.”
A NSW Health spokesperson said limiting funerals to 10 people was to minimise mixing between households.
“This decision is not taken lightly and is consistent with NSW Health guidelines during the Greater Sydney restrictions,” they said in a statement.
“The restrictions currently in place are designed to limit interaction between people from different households and reduce mobility to prevent the further spread of COVID-19 in the community.”
The ABC has contacted Rookwood Cemetery for comment.
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