Bereavement care sector treading with caution

Chairs are set 1m apart from each other in Nirvana funeral parlours.

The rising death toll of Covid-19 cases has those in the bereavement care sector taking a cautious stand in terms of their daily operations.

One organisation in Petaling Jaya decided to close its parlours, cemetery and crematorium for the duration of the movement control order (MCO) due to fears that those coming to its cemetery for Qing Ming rituals and funeral attendees may worsen the spread of infection.

Though this has drawn criticism, Petaling Jaya Chinese Cemetery Association chairman Willie Tan said the association’s decision was in line with the Prevention and Control of Infectious Diseases 1988 Act, which prohibits gatherings in any premises within any infected local area whether for religious, sports, recreational, social or cultural purpose.

Petaling Jaya Chinese Cemetery Association manages Gui Yuan Crematorium and Funeral Hall.

Willie said the association wanted to keep its members, their staff and visitors safe.

He added that in times of grief, emotions could make it challenging for the security team to implement crowd control and maintain social distancing.

“We do not want to take responsibility should anything like a new outbreak occur from here.

“My employees are also not willing to risk their health. As such, our aim is to care for the safety of the living first.

“We truly sympathise and ask everyone to be patient until the MCO is over and we can resume operations, ” said Willie.

However, community groups pointed out that the shutting of this essential service was inconvenient for the public.

Funeral attendees being screened at Kuala Lumpur Hokkien Cemetery columbarium.Funeral attendees being screened at Kuala Lumpur Hokkien Cemetery columbarium.

“It should remain open but only for cremations. No wakes or processions. Whether there is an MCO or not, people still die, ” said Petaling Jaya Residents Association secretary Datuk Dr Vincent Ng.

Ng said if crowd control was the issue, the parlour should implement measures such as stationing personnel at the entrance to carry out temperature checks and ensuring employees wear masks and gloves.

Masks should also be given out to attendees who did not have one and hand sanitisers made available, he added.

Ng said the association could call in People’s Volunteer Corps or Rela members, council enforcement personnel, the police or Malaysian Civil Defence Force to ensure attendees comply with guidelines.

“The closure of the crematorium will be a problem for residents unless the Petaling Jaya City Council (MBPJ) Crematorium next door has the capacity to handle all the cases in the meantime.

“But, the council-owned crematorium does not have parlour facilities, ” said Section 5 Petaling Jaya Residents Association chairman Ben Thompson.

For now, if the MBPJ crematorium is full, the nearest government-owned facilities are in Bandar Puchong Utama (managed by Subang Jaya Municipal Council) in Selangor and one in Jalan Kuari, Cheras (Kuala Lumpur City Hall).

SS20 Cares Society chairman Eileen Thong said she understood the association’s concern for public health – even if it were to set guidelines, it would be exposing itself to risks.

“Emotions will be running high when mourners gather, making crowd management difficult.

“People must understand that we are fighting a pandemic and these are not ordinary times, ” added Thong.

But if more funeral service facilities decide to close during the MCO, she stressed that the government should work out an alternative solution.

“The mental health, anxiety and feelings of the next of kin must be given serious consideration, ” said Thong.

Michael performing the offering ceremony and prayers for his late father at home.Michael performing the offering ceremony and prayers for his late father at home.

The situation differs slightly at Kuala Lumpur Hokkien Cemetery, which is managed by Selangor and Kuala Lumpur Hokkien Association.

Visitors looking to perform Qing Ming rituals are barred from going to its columbarium and burial grounds during the MCO period but it is open for funerals.

Selangor and Kuala Lumpur Hokkien Association secretary-general Tan Peng Chung said for burials, the deceased must be a member of the association while the columbarium was open.

But with the MCO in force, Peng Chung said there were guidelines for mourners to follow at both places.

“The advice to the next-of-kin for funerary rites is no more than 10 family members present at the ceremonies which should not last more than an hour.

“If there is more than one case at the same time, they will be required to follow set appointment times to avoid overcrowding and ensure social distancing of one metre can be observed.

“Security guards will check family members’ temperatures and they must wear masks and use hand sanitisers. Anyone with a high temperature will not be allowed in.

“Those who are not family members but want to pay their last respects to the deceased can come but stay no longer than 10 minutes, ” said Peng Chung.

Families of the deceased who want to perform more elaborate rites are also offered a temporary place for ashes until the MCO is over so they can return to carry out the necessary rituals.

Nirvana Care Sdn Bhd sales and service general manager Teh Khai Lin, who has 15 years of experience in the industry, said the MCO required those offering funerary services to rethink their service delivery.

Having closed its memorial halls to visitors until the MCO is lifted, it is only open to funerals but like the Kuala Lumpur Hokkien Cemetery, there are restrictions.

Offerings of a paper car, shirts and money being burnt by Michael for his father.Offerings of a paper car, shirts and money being burnt by Michael for his father.

“For wake services, we have stopped food and beverages as well as music band services as these are not essential parts of a funeral and reduced the number of tables and chairs (only four to six in a room) so attendees do not stay longer than required at the venue, ” said Teh.

The preferred option of many family members now is to cremate the remains first and postpone service until the MCO ends.

Teh said customers were aware of the government’s directive and the importance of breaking the Covid-19 chain of infection.

“There are some who refuse to comply but we have to be firm, but polite in our approach.

“Most eventually will agree. To handle those who are in great distress, we have a grief care team, ” said Teh.

Remembering the departed from home

In life, Ooi Ah Bee was his son’s hero, a unique man known for his kindness and determination.

But as much as Michael Ooi would have liked to perform the Qing Ming rituals at his late father’s grave, the 52-year-old marketing manager adhered to the movement control order (MCO) and stayed away from the cemetery, performing the offering ceremony at home instead.

“I set up an altar for my father at home when he passed away in 2015. To remember him during Qing Ming, my siblings and I agreed to hold prayers for him on March 28.

“So, the night before, I explained the situation to my father and ancestors in my prayers to inform them that cemetery visits are not allowed due to the MCO.

“After apologising to them on my siblings’ behalf, I told them that I will give our offerings to them from home, ” said Michael.

The next morning, he went to buy fruits and vegetarian meals.

By 10am, he was ready with his offerings of food and paper car, clothes, shoes as well as silver and gold bars which were later burnt outside the front door of his house.

Michael performed the task alone as his siblings, who live out of town, were unable to travel. The entire ceremony was over by noon.

Michael was sure his ancestors understood the actions he had to take under the circumstances.

He felt they would want him to stay home and not visit their graves if it meant risking his health.

Michael’s method is an example for those wanting to show filial piety during the MCO.

Federation of Taoist Associations president Tan Hoe Chieow, in a circular, urged everyone to adhere strictly to the MCO by not going to the tombs of their ancestors for Qing Ming spring cleaning.

“You can pray from your homes, asking your ancestors to protect you and your family, ” said Tan.

Another alternative, as offered by the Nirvana bereavement care group, is to have their personnel deliver offerings to the tombs.

A hotline was also made available to those wanting to dedicate online messages of remembrance to the departed.

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