Funeral Director Omar Rodriguez looks over caskets of bodies at the Gerard J. Neufeld funeral home during the outbreak of the coronavirus disease (COVID-19) in the borough of Queens, New York, US, on April 26, 2020. Image Credit: Reuters

Death is pain. A searing pain that becomes a memory. A memory that burns like embers in the heart. The pain never goes away. Death of a loved one is never easy. You deal with it. Time heals the wounds, and you get on with life.

In life, death is the only certainty. Everyone who’s born has to die. Which is why in some cultures, death is a celebration. A culmination of life.

Death is a farewell too. Farewell to the life on earth. Family and friends gather for a final farewell. It’s a gathering to pay tributes to the departed. To remember the good times. To cherish their memories. To ease the pain of loved ones. There’s dignity in death.

How death has become a number

The coronavirus has killed death. And its dignity. Death has become a statistic. More than 50,000 dead in the United States, 20,000 in the United Kingdom, 26,000 in Italy and 23,000 more in Spain. Death has become a number, my colleague Alex Abraham observed in his column, a couple of weeks back. Who are these dead people? Nobody pauses to think. They are far too many.

Death by coronavirus is a lonely affair: no last rites, no celebrations, no flowers or wreaths, no eulogies, no wakes. Death is no longer what it used to be.

Burial or cremation has become a hasty event. Only a handful of people will be there to say the last goodbye. The Italians were not so lucky. At the peak of the corona storm, hearses kept coming to the crematoriums every half hour. Not a soul to see off the dead.

Social distancing is keeping people away. There are no gatherings. Dead bodies can be deadly. The virus remains in the bodies and their clothes. Enough reason to scare people away.

Even medical professionals aren’t spared. Remember Li Wenliang, the Chinese doctor who warned of the new coronavirus. Many more laid their lives treating COVID-19 patients. These doctors, nurses and paramedics are the soldiers in the frontline in the war against coronavirus. They willingly accept the risks to save our lives. We have to honour their sacrifice.

When death is an inconvenience

That sacrifice was lost on the people of Vanagaram in Chennai, capital of the southern Indian state of Tamil Nadu. Simon Hercules was a neurosurgeon who died treating COVID-19 patients. He never got a decent burial. Hercules’ family and friends were beaten by a mob that gathered at the Velangadu cemetery. In death, a man who gave his life to curing people never got the respect he deserved.

Worse is the story from Bhopal, in the Indian state of Madhya Pradesh, where a son refused to cremate his father who died of COVID-19. Not even a PPE (personal protection equipment) would persuade him to perform the last rites. The village chief conducted the funeral. A father and a husband, he didn’t get a proper send-off. Death by corona has become an inconvenience to the living.

There are some heartwarming stories too. Of communities coming to help each in these times of grief. One of them is from Indore — a hotspot in Madhya Pradesh — where four Hindu workers at a hospital mortuary helped bury Muslims, whose relatives were reluctant to attend the funeral for fear of contracting the disease.

This fear is bred by ignorance. Dead bodies can be a source of infection, so people shouldn’t touch the deceased. Rituals can be performed without fear of infection if the funerals are carried out in controlled conditions. But people are not willing to risk it. Father, mother, daughter or son, it doesn’t matter. Their life is more precious than a loved one’s death. Who can argue with that? Fear of death burns the bonds of love.

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A death unconnected to coronavirus too is a daunting prospect in these times. How do you explain the three bodies returned to the UAE from India? They were not corona victims. Think of the pain caused to the dear ones.

Think of the pain of the Indian parents in the UAE who had to watch the live streaming of their son’s funeral in Kerala. In life, they wouldn’t have let him out of sight. When cancer took him away, the parents couldn't even accompany him to their homeland, let alone dignify the burial with their presence. The dead are gone, and the living has to live with the pain.

The end of life has never been more tragic. There’s no dignity in death. No longer.