A new way to mourn: How Covid-19 has changed funerals in Malaysia

A general view of the Nirvana Memorial Centre in Sungai Besi March 24, 2020. — Picture by Hari Anggara
A general view of the Nirvana Memorial Centre in Sungai Besi March 24, 2020. — Picture by Hari Anggara

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KUALA LUMPUR, May 19 — Among the many things that have to change as we grapple with the Covid-19 pandemic is how we deal with funerals.

Nirvana Memorial Centre, one of the country’s biggest death care services providers, has gone to great lengths to ensure its funeral parlours are virus-free.

It has closed several entrances to its premises and set up body temperature screening counters at the entrance.

The bereavement care facility also disinfects its vans on a daily basis while staff are equipped with personal protective equipment (PPE) suits and comply with social distancing guidelines.

“We even have Dupont Tyvek Hazmat suits in place to protect our staff in the event that we have to handle anyone suspected or confirmed of a Covid-19 death,” said Teh Khai Lin, general manager for sales and services at Nirvana, when met recently.

“We have our own come-and-go approach to guide relatives and friends who are here to pay their respects, and then leave within 10 minutes to avoid them lingering on our premises.

“We’ve set limited chairs — four to six only at the venue — and no refreshments will be served so that relatives, friends and visitors have no reason to stay on for too long,” Teh told Malay Mail.

He said it helps keep the numbers low at the funeral parlous, adding that the same approach is applied to funerals held in residential areas.

In the latest gazetted rules for the conditional movement control order (CMCO), only 20 people are allowed to attend a funeral.

Meanwhile, victims of Covid-19 have to be handled by medical personnel in full PPE suits, and few of their kin are allowed to observe.

According to Baskaran from Baskaran Funeral Home on Old Klang Road, very few people attend funerals these days.

“For the Indians, since some may keep the body at home for a day or two for people to pay their last respects, many people will come and visit and sit around for a while to show solidarity with the deceased’s family.

“Nowadays, the houses are quite empty. The only people who come to pay their respects are the neighbours,” he told Malay Mail.

“Everyone’s scared, I suppose. For us, we still have to do the job or else no one will, so we have started wearing extra gear when cleaning the bodies.

“Although we don’t have any Covid-19 cases, in these times, many people understand the severity of this disease and I feel the deceased's families are understanding of the situation but they are even sadder because not many people are around.”

Nirvana Memorial Centre observes social distancing on its premises in Sungai Besi March 24, 2020. — Picture by Hari Anggara
Nirvana Memorial Centre observes social distancing on its premises in Sungai Besi March 24, 2020. — Picture by Hari Anggara

Teh agreed with Baskaran’s assessment that some families who are struggling with the loss of a loved one may have a hard time letting go and want to stay with the deceased longer.

Usually, Nirvana opens its doors 24 hours a day, but with the lockdown in place, staff at the centre will very politely tell people to leave even if it’s a difficult thing to do.

“Most bereaved families are cooperative by leaving the premises before 10pm.

“Our bereavement care service providers are doing their best to ensure funerals are carried out smoothly and peacefully without much interruption.

“We understand it is difficult for them at this time, we hope they can bear with us and we all have roles to play to fight this war against Covid-19,” Teh added.

Apart from these steps, Nirvana also does not allow children below 10 to follow the funeral cortege for burial.

“This is to minimise people moving around on the road and in our memorial parks. Children of 10 years and below and the elderly of 60 years and above are not allowed to follow the funeral cortege,” said Teh.

“These groups of people are more vulnerable to the virus.”

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