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'It has even changed death': Virus disrupts burials in Turkey

  • Fulya Ozerkan

    Agence France-Presse

Istanbul, Turkey   /   Fri, May 22, 2020   /   12:30 pm
'It has even changed death': Virus disrupts burials in Turkey A man (left) cries as others attend a funeral prayer for relatives who died of COVID-19, on Thursday, 2020, at the Cekmekoy morgue in Istanbul, where bodies are prepared for burial according to Islamic traditions. The cemetery in the city's Beykoz district on the Asian side was built in March when Turkey confirmed its first case. Now it houses more than 700 people who died of contagious diseases including COVID-19. (AFP/Bulent Kilic )

In normal times, almost 200 people would have attended the funeral for Ahmet Ucukcu's 95-year-old father at an Istanbul cemetery. 

The coronavirus which took his life has changed all that.

"Many of my relatives wouldn't come except for close family members and his sons who were authorized to attend only," Ucukcu told AFP. 

"We are just six or seven people."

The scaled-down ceremony took place at a cemetery in the city's Beykoz district on the Asian side, which was built in March when Turkey confirmed its first virus case.

It already houses the remains of over 700 people who died of contagious diseases including COVID-19.

Ucukcu lost his father Ali to the virus after the old man was treated for 10 days. He also suffered from chronic illnesses.

Gathered around the grave, Ucukcu and his close family -- all wearing protective masks and standing a few paces from each other -- say prayers after the coffin is buried.

Before the pandemic a shroud would suffice.

Only an hour earlier, the group were at a nearby morgue where the body was washed by personnel in hazmat suits before being wrapped in cloth and placed in a coffin.

A small collective prayer was then held outside the morgue with those attending respecting social distancing rules. 

The imam -- also in a hazmat suit -- led the funeral prayers for the deceased before the coffin was taken by hearse to the Beykoz cemetery.

 

'Speedy burial'

Ayhan Koc, head of  Istanbul's cemeteries department, said a fast burial without traditional Islamic rituals was an efficient and correct method given the current situation.

He said in the past there would have been a funeral prayer after the midday and afternoon prayers but now the aim was to ensure a speedy burial, without even taking the body to the mosque.

The government shut down mosques in March for mass prayers as part of efforts to stop the spread of the virus.

And rituals are no longer allowed where people visit the family of the deceased to offer their condolences and where verses from the Koran are recited.

"A virus which could only be seen through a microscope has changed the world order, everything; customs, traditions and funeral ceremonies. It has changed even death," said Koc.

Turkey has recorded more than 4,200 coronavirus deaths and 153,000 confirmed cases but the daily death tolls have recently fallen below 100.

 

'Damn disease'

At the Beykoz cemetery, three women -- a mother and her two daughters -- wearing headscarves were sitting on the ground next to a headstone, reading the Koran, with tears in their eyes.  

"Mosques are closed because of the pandemic. We cannot bury our deceased in the way we wanted," said Filiz, who lost her 76-year-old father last week.

He died from an infectious disease but was buried at Beykoz because he received treatment at a pandemic hospital although he tested negative for COVID-19.

"Only six people could join the funeral prayer: his grandchildren, daughters and son-in-laws. We buried my dad altogether," she said, adding the ceremony was at least "conducted in a proper fashion".

Relatives of the diseased respect the new rules "with no objections", said Koc.

Ahmet welcomed the new restrictive measures to protect people's health.

"If there was a crowd, it would be more dangerous," he said.

Cengiz Aktas was the only one to join the funeral prayer for his grandmother Faize Kilic, who died from coronavirus at the age of 85. 

"I have nobody who could join the rites here but me. My mother aged over 65 is not allowed to go out," he said.

"This is such a damn disease that you cannot have a proper funeral prayer at a mosque," he lamented.