The Tamil Nadu government has issued an ordinance stating that any attempts to block the funeral or last rites of a person who died of the coronavirus will be a criminal offence, inviting up to three years in prison, IANS reported on Sunday. The executive order was passed to ensure that all patients in the state receive a dignified burial or cremation.

In a statement the government said those who block the burial or cremation of bodies of persons who died due to notified diseases will be punished under Tamil Nadu Public Health Act. Such an offence would attract a fine and a jail term of minimum one year which may go up to three years, it said.

Funeral rituals in India are being dramatically changed by the coronavirus pandemic as families in various parts of the country have refused to perform the last rites of their relatives over the fear of the spread of the Covid-19 infection. According to the new guidelines for disposal of bodies that were issued by the Centre on March 15, funerals are now limited to 20 or fewer attendees. The guidelines also prohibit bathing or embalming the corpse of a Covid-19 patients and ban relatives from kissing or hugging the body to avoid any risk of transmitting the virus.

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The order came after a surgeon in Chennai had to dig a grave for his colleague who died of Covid-19 with the help of two ward boys at a cemetery.

Dr Simon Hercules, a prominent neurosurgeon from Chennai, had died on April 19 after a two-week battle with Covid-19. Civic officials granted permission for his body to buried at a cemetery in Kilpauk area. But outside the graveyard, a crowd afraid of being infected by the virus forced the ambulance to turn away.

The ambulance driver then turned towards a burial ground in Anna Nagar, where protesting locals not only blocked the path but also attacked the driver and others in the vehicle with sticks and stones. They broke the vehicle’s windows and injured the driver, a sanitation worker and a civic official, forcing everyone in the ambulance to abandon the body for a while and seek safety.

Later in the night, three of Hercules’ colleagues, dressed in complete protective gear, returned to the cemetery with a police escort and buried the doctor themselves.

The Madras High Court, which had taken up the case on its own, had observed that Dr Simon was deprived of his right to a dignified burial and had issued a notice to the state government. Chief Minister Edappadi Palaniswami had assured the court and people that everyone who died of the disease will get a dignified funeral.

Tamil Nadu has reported 1,821 coronavirus cases, as of Monday. Out of these, nearly half of the cases were reported from five cities – Chennai, Coimbatore, Madurai, Tirupur and Salem – where an “intense lockdown” is in place since Sunday to contain the infection.

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