Covid stretching crematoriums beyond capacity

Monks perform religious rites for cremation at Wat Khae Nork in Nonthaburi. (Photos courtesy of Wat Khae Nork)

The spike in the death toll from Covid-19 has burdened temples with cremation amid concern over the risk of contamination.

Early this week, the story of an undertaker at Wat Sutthawat in Thon Buri went viral on social media. He asked neighbouring temples to help cremate those who died of Covid-19 because his incinerator was stretched to its limit after handling over 40 corpses. Moreover, he asked for personal protective equipment because he has not been vaccinated yet.

His case highlights the huge demand for cremation services after the third wave of the pandemic. Since April, there have been over 343,000 patients and 2,900 deaths.

The National Office of Buddhism has ordered temples to ensure that those who die of Covid-19 are afforded proper cremation services. Wat Sao Thong Hin in Nonthaburi is one of those offering free cremation services, including relic collection and water burial. Some monks are even taking on the undertaker's job such as Phra Pongpetch Santijitto of Wat Chin Wararam Worawihan in Pathum Thani.

Staff place a coffin with a Covid-19 victim into the incinerator at Wat Sao Thong Hin in Nonthaburi. (Photo: Wat Sao Thong Hin)

However, temples are struggling to cope with the growing demand for funerals. Recently, the crematorium area of Wat Khae Nork in Nonthaburi caught fire. Phra Maha Surasak Surasakko, an abbot's assistant, said staff was burning two bodies when the crematorium's roof caught fire because its old furnace was overworked. The temple has now suspended services to repair its building.

Asst Prof Dr Smith Srisont, the forensic medicine staff at Mahidol University's Ramathibodi Hospital and president of the Forensic Physician Association of Thailand, said only some temples are bearing the burden of cremation because many others have turned away those who died of Covid-19 out of concern over contamination.

"First, health and rescue workers put every corpse of the confirmed coronavirus patient in two or three layers of cadaver bags. Don't worry about infection unless they are opened. Second, if a corpse is put in a coffin, protective gear is not needed. In case of touching the bag with the body inside, wearing gloves is enough. Third, burn the corpse quickly because it is not injected with formaldehyde or bury it in accordance with other religions. Finally, there hasn't been any report of contracting the virus from corpses. There is chance of getting it from secretions, but don't worry about contamination because they are properly wrapped," he said.

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