The outbreak of COVID-19 and rapid increase of cases in India has created a consciousness of rights granted to dead bodies of COVID-19 victim. In this Article, Majorly the highlight has been done on expansion of Article 21 to inculcate Right to have dignified funeral of COVID-19 victim. When a person deserves to have ‘Right to live with dignity’ then he must be granted ‘Right to have dignified funeral’ as a part of Right to life. It is quite natural that a person who has born will die one day. However, death should not be socially stigmatized. Different judgments have been elucidated which support the essence of this Article. The author has also tried to compare the rights and steps taken in the U.S.A and UK to preserve the dignity of dead people. While concluding, the author has incorporated suggestions for granting basic rights to dead people in this ongoing crisis. Public health law of our country needs to be improved for reducing the calamity arising out of this pandemic.
KEYWORDS- COVID-19 pandemic, dignified funeral, Article 21, Death with Dignity, COVID-19 guidelines on Dead Body Management
“Death must be beautiful. To lie on a soft brown earth, with grasses waiving above one’s head, and listen to the silence. To have no yesterday, no tomorrow. To forget life, to forgive life, to be at peace.”- Oscar Wilde
With the pandemic increasing around the globe, the definition of the new normal is changing. People are raising their voice against mishandling of dead bodies from COVID-19 infection and infringement of their rights to have dignified funeral.
Similar scenarios have been sadly evidenced in numerous parts of India. Upsetting media reports are approaching, for instance dead bodies were piled up in hospital wards along with patients in New Delhi. It has been seen that the family of dead victims have to console and satisfy themselves through the name tag marked on covered dead body before the staffs take it to burial/cremation ground. Also, in Pondicherry, workers were found disgracefully dumping the body in a pit at burial ground. Such heart-wrenching occurrences are inciting people to question their conscience with respect to basic human rights which includes dignified funeral as a part of right to die with dignity.
INTERPETATION OF JUDICIARY REGARDING COVID-19 DEAD BODIES RIGHT TO HAVE DIGNIFIED FUNERAL
The Apex Court, in the month of June, took suo motu cognizance on this matter after a letter was written by the former Union Minister which expressed about news reports on lack of care given to dead bodies of Covid-19 victims. Subsequently, The Court asked for a response of the Centre in pursuance of earlier directions issued by it, related to dignified handling of COVID-19 dead bodies in hospitals and burial grounds.
Before Supreme Court took the matter into its hands, several High Courts observed that Right to life included right to die with dignity and right to have dignified funeral.
The Bombay High Court dismissed pleas filed against Mumbai Municipal Authorities for permitting burial only at three cemeteries in Bandra, the plea was forwarded on the fears that COVID-19 may spread from dead bodies. Nonetheless, there is no scientific basis which suggests that COVID-19 can be contained from dead bodies albeit taking all the safety measures. The bench said in its order that ‘Right to a dignified burial, commensurate with the dignity of the individual, is recognized as a facet of the right to life guaranteed by Article 21 of the Constitution’. Consequently, people who died of suspected/confirmed infection of Covid-19 cannot be deprived of basic rights and facilities which are eligible to them under normal circumstances.
Article 21 provides that ‘No person shall be deprived of his life and personal liberty except according to the procedure established by law’. In the landmark case of Kharak Singh v. Union of India, SC stated a quote related to Life from Munn v. Illnois–
“Something more than mere animal existence. The inhibition against its deprivation extends to all those limbs and faculties by which life is enjoyed.”
Further, Supreme Court in Common Cause (A Regd. Society) v. Union of India &Anr held that right to die with dignity is an inseparable and inextricable facet of the right to live with dignity and death is of course not the opposite of life but the part of it.
The S.C also articulated in P. Rathinam v. Union of India, that the right to live with human dignity and same does not connote continued drudging. It should be centred on a unique course of civilisation and a broader perception of life which comprises tradition, culture, and heritage of the affected person under the purview of Article 21.
The S.C in case of Parmanand Katara v. Union of India expressed that “Right to dignity and fair treatment under Article 21 of the Constitution of India is not only available to a living man but also to his body after his death”.
In various cases, the Hon’ble Supreme Court have given their judgement on how proper rituals must be followed and proper treatment be given to dead bodies.
There are two definite tentacles of this issue, one is maintaining the public health along with taking precautionary measures and second is, respecting the remains of dead by giving them a dignified funeral. Further the dignified funeral is connected to their religious rights. Can the right to have a dignified funeral be associated with Article 25 of Indian Constitution which guarantees right to profess, practice and propagation of any religion, subject to public morality, order and health?
Article 25 has been formulated on the basis of Indian social structure which consists of cultural patterns and ethnic diversity. It evidently mentions ‘subject to public health and morality’ and hence, public health is predominant over the rights of person dying from the COVID-19. Regardless, the balance between providing a dignified burial with religious norms and protecting the public health safety must be assured by the state.
Further Varied Porinchukutty and Anr. V. The State Of Kerala, it can be inferred that methods of disposing of a body with religions norms form an integral part of their right to exercise their religion. Also, in Aksray Adhikari Abhiyan v. Union of India, it was acknowledged that Government should take measures in giving a dignified burial to the homeless as well as the unclaimed dead bodies however no guidelines were issued by the Court.
The Patna High Court in Vikas Chandra v. Union of India & Ors., held that last rites of unclaimed and unidentified bodies should be done with utmost faith and dignity. The funeral must be done according to respective faith and rituals, if the identity is confirmable.
The Madras High Court in S.S Sethu Raja v. The Chief Secretary held that “The right to life includes the right to live with human dignity. The similar magnitude of dignity should be granted to a living and a dead person. The right to accord a dignified burial or cremation of the dead body should be taken as part of right to such human dignity”.
In a recent issue, suo moto written petition was taken by Madras High Court where it stated that “The scope and ambit of Article 21 includes right to have dignified burial. Taking the circumstance into hand, it also incorporated criminal liabilities such as Section 297 of IPC which deals with offences relating to trespassing burial places and people which hinder the rights of dead person to have dignified burial”.
The Guidelines issued by Centre on COVID-19 dead body management provides that staffs need to take standard precautions while performing the last rites of dead bodies, that includes hand hygiene, use of personal protective equipment. It cannot be denied that the Centre took care of the religious beliefs of dead person as it clearly mentions about religious rituals such as reading from scripts, sprinkling holy water, and any other last rites that should be performed, however the body should not be touched. The Centre has considered the slightest of odds of containing virus from dead and enacted guidelines properly.
Even an International body such as WHO has been stressed through their guidelines that people dying from COVID-19 must have right to get a dignified funeral. It also mentions that dead bodies can be either buried or cremated.
COMPARATIVE ANALYSIS WITH RESPECT TO U.S.A AND U.K LEGISLATIONS
A progressive example can be taken from CDC guidelines for funeral management from United States of America which gets updated from time to time. It mentions about honouring the dead by arranging an online video conferencing and asking the family and friends who were not present in the funeral to share stories about those who lost their lives by the infection. It also suggests grief counselling services and provides the portal for same to the affected people. Grieving people can have a word with the professionals to cope up with their mental health and handle grief on such platforms. Also, separate guidelines for Indian-Americans has been issued considering their ethnicity.
This firmly sets the precedent that CDC is trying to create a connection to common people. We cannot deny that the bed of the dead brings every human being to its pure individuality and it must be respected that by establishing connection with people who lost their loved ones. However, the guidelines given in India are rather technical and somewhat fail to respect the sentiments of the general public.
Another example can be taken from U.K which codified a separate act called ‘The Coronavirus Act 2020’ for dealing with public health crisis amid the pandemic. In this Act, Section 58 deals with powers in relation to transportation, storage, and disposal of dead bodies.
Article 1 of The Universal Declaration of Human Rights states that “All Human beings are born free and equal in dignity and rights”.
In 2005, United Nation Commission on Human Rights stated that “Human remains must be handled with dignity, also proper management and disposal should be done”.
On the other hand, there is no proper law in India which articulates that right to have a dignified funeral comes under the scope of Article 21 of Indian Constitution. With time, it has been interpreted by the Apex court as well as high courts that the mentioned right must be given to the dead so as to preserve the purity of basic human rights and concept of welfare state.
It is denoted that Right to have a dignified funeral can be taken under the facade of Article 21 as it ensures the remains of the dead are respected in due course. Also, this expansion preserves the prime objective behind inculcation of the article.
There is no framed law which guarantees the State to uphold the responsibility for funeral of dead bodies but unpredictable times demand different deeds and the judiciary has elucidated time and again, the role of state to provide dignified burial to dead ones.
Then, there are scientific researches revealing and busting the myth about procedure of burial as well as cremation is safe for disposing of the dead bodies dying out of Covid-19 infection.
It can be inferred that the guidelines issued on COVID-19 dead bodies management in India needs an urgent update considering the present health crisis and number of deaths in the country.
India upholds a unique image due to socio-cultural fabric along with ethno-religious and linguistic characteristics. It is challenging to reproduce from single piece of legislation but ideas can be extracted along with the demand of the country. At a local level, health agencies must commute with civil society or create small support group for spreading scientific awareness and clearing several associated misconceptions. It can also prevent the social stigma arising during death of COVID-19 victims. To conclude, as Salmond has firmly stated “There are three things in respect of which the worries of living person extend even after their death. Those are his body, his reputation and his property. At an individual level and being a responsible citizen of this country, one must follow the guidelines issued by the state and perform the funeral with the utmost social distancing, as per the norms, rather than creating a problematic scenario for state. It cannot be denied that catastrophe created by COVID-19 is unlimited, each sector is tackling with the damage. In the course of it, bidding goodbyes and giving respect to dead ones has been hard for people. Nevertheless, emotions start flowing at peak during the death of our loved ones and intense religious beliefs are also connected to it, but tougher decisions are required to make for fulfilling the need of hour and as a part of this society.
Author: Arya Anand, Vivekananda Institute of Professional Studies, Guru Gobind Singh