A lonely goodbye

Family members are not allowed a last farewell to COVID-19 victims at Yangon Region’s largest cemetery, where more than 800 confirmed cases have been cremated in the past two months.

By HEIN THAR | FRONTIER

U Soe Moe Win managed to keep his voice steady, but his face couldn’t hide his sadness. “I just got the death certificate,” he said, pulling out the crisp, white sheet of paper.

Soe Moe Win’s wife, Daw Khin Lay Shwe, died of COVID-19 at Yangon’s North Okkalapa Hospital on October 12.

The time she spent in hospital was traumatic for the family. Khin Lay, who was 50, had a pre-existing condition, systemic lupus erythematosus, an autoimmune disease, and was terrified of pain.

“My two children and I were worried we wouldn’t get another chance to see her, but that’s exactly what happened,” Soe Moe Win said. “We didn’t even get to see her face one last time.”

Because COVID-19 patients must be kept in isolation to contain the spread of the disease, the only way they can communicate with relatives is through video calls on their mobile phones, said Ma Yadanar Khin, a nurse at Yangon General Hospital.

“It has become the new normal to farewell loved ones through a video call,” she said. “We feel so sorry for them.”

But when Soe Moe Win spoke to Khin Lay the night before she died, he had no idea that it was the last time he’d say goodbye.

“We made video calls every night,” said Soe Moe Win. “The last time, she said she was feeling better but the next morning the hospital called to say she had died. The death certificate arrived the next day.”

Even in death the family has remained apart. The government’s efforts to control the spread of COVID-19 include instructions to cremate victims of the disease within two or three hours, Yadanar Khin said. Family members are not allowed to farewell the bodies of loved ones who die at hospitals. Nor are they permitted to hold a funeral ceremony in the presence of the body or transport it to a cemetery, and ceremonies are not allowed at the cemetery.

Soe Moe Win said he accepted that he could not farewell his wife a final time because of COVID-19 restrictions. “I don’t blame anyone; this is a worldwide problem, isn’t it?” he said.

When a coronavirus patient dies at a hospital or quarantine centre in Yangon Region, the body is wrapped in white cloth and transported by the Yangon City Development Committee to its sprawling Hteinbin Cemetery in Hlaing Tharyar Township within hours for cremation.

Hteinbin is the only cemetery in Yangon Region where the regional government has permitted COVID-19 cases to be cremated or buried.

Volunteers remove their protective equipment after burying the body of a deceased COVID-19 patients in Yangon’s Hteinbin cemetery on October 23. (Hkun Lat | Frontier)

During the first outbreak of COVID-19 – when Myanmar recorded only six deaths – up to three family members were permitted to attend funeral ceremonies provided they wore protective clothing and had tested negative for the virus.

But with Yangon accounting for the vast majority of the country’s COVID-19 deaths – which stood at 1,147 on October 28 – YCDC’s Department of Pollution and Cleansing has been forced to restrict funeral services at Hteinbin, Yangon’s largest cemetery.

A 10-point order issued by the YCDC on September 25 said bodies should be cremated immediately.

Funerals for Buddhists typically include a sermon and an offering ceremony, which can take place either at the cemetery or in the home, but these have been halted at Hteinbin for COVID-19 patients.

That means the families of COVID-19 victims have had to hold ceremonies only at home, but in some cases they have not been able to invite guests because they have been in recent contact with a COVID-19 patient.

Cremations of those suspected of dying from COVID-19 but who were not confirmed are also being held at Hteinbin Cemetery. These are restricted to immediate family members, a brief sermon and a short ceremony.

At one such funeral service Frontier witnessed at Hteinbin, a monk wearing a mask conducted service as a weeping relative made a video call to someone who was unable to attend.

The YCDC order makes an exception for Muslims, who it says should be buried immediately rather than cremated, in line with their beliefs. Prayers can be offered in advance of burials at the Muslim section of the cemetery. The bodies of Muslims are usually bathed before burial but only a small amount of water is used for COVID-19 victims.

The burial of Muslims is handled by a Muslim organisation rather than YCDC. The group works together with volunteer ambulances to carry out free burials.

Although YCDC has not permitted journalists to attend or photograph cremations at Hteinbin, Frontier was able to gain access to the Muslim section, where volunteers were placing bodies enshrouded in white cloth into neat rows of fresh graves under the fierce mid-October heat.

A volunteer burns his protective gear after burying deceased COVID-19 patients at the Hteinbin cemetery in Yangon. (Hkun Lat | Frontier)

Hteinbin Cemetery chief U Saw Myo Nyunt Thein – better known as U Saw – said funeral service times had been restricted to reduce the risk of spreading the virus and to ease the heavy workload on staff. The cemetery has 44 staff, and cremations are carried out by a team of eight.

During the first wave from March to August there were only two cremations of confirmed COVID-19 cases at Hteinbin. That changed dramatically after the second wave struck, and figures for the cemetery show it cremated more than 800 coronavirus victims between September and October 20.

There were more than 500 cremations of COVID-19 patients in the first half of October alone, said U Saw; 30 burials a day was not uncommon.

U Saw said cemetery staff worked around the clock to bring bodies to Hteinbin from across the city using a fleet of four vehicles, and had been unable to take any days off.

“We are so scared; I have never seen so many people die in my life,” said U Saw, who has worked at the cemetery for nearly 20 years and became its manager almost a decade ago.

“I want the cemetery to return to normal,” he added. “I’m tired of cremating the bodies of people whose relatives could not come to farewell them.”

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