Court says covid19 patient's daughter can challenge ban on open-pyre cremations

File photo: Waterloo cremation site. Photo by Lincoln Holder
File photo: Waterloo cremation site. Photo by Lincoln Holder

A HIGH COURT judge has granted permission to the daughter of a covid19 fatality to challenge the ban on open-air pyre cremations.

Justice Avason Quinlan-Williams granted permission to Cindy-Ann Ramsaroop-Persad, whose father, Silochan, 77, died at the Couva Hospital and Multi Training Facility on July 25.

The elder Ramsaroop’s death certificate said his cause of death was covid19 pneumonia, covid19 infection, hypertension and Type II diabetes.

The police initially gave the family a permit for his final rites at the Waterloo Cremation Site, but this was later rescinded.

The family was told it had to be revoked because of the ban on open-air pyre cremations for covid19 deaths. Open-air pyre cremations are allowed for those who did not die of covid19.

Ramsaroop-Persad, who works at a funeral home, got permission to challenge the Commissioner of Police’s decision not to grant the permit. Similar permission to challenge the Minister of Health was denied, since the Attorney General was also named as a defendant to the constitutional-motion aspect of the claim, which also included a judicial review application.

The judge did not grant Ramsaroop-Persad’s application for interim relief to direct the commissioner to issue a cremation permit in 24 hours so the family can have an open-air pyre cremation, as she deemed the matter urgent.

As a result, Ramsaroop’s funeral is on hold until the judge orders otherwise. His body remains at the Dass Funeral Home, where his daughter works.

She is represented by attorneys Anand Ramlogan, SC, Jayanti Lutchmedial, Vishaal Siewsaran, Renuka Rambhajan, Natasha Bisram and Cheyenne Lugo.

Included in Ramsaroop-Persad’s claim was an expert opinion by Dr Farley Cleghorn, a Trinidadian epidemiologist based in Washington, DC, who has provided similar opinions on various infectious diseases, including covid19, on several American television networks.

Cleghorn is also a member of a covid19 advocacy group providing technical assistance to Trinidad and Tobago.

He was asked to give his opinion on the risk of contracting covid19 from someone who died from it, and whether there was any greater risk of contracting the virus from an open-air pyre cremation as opposed to an indoor cremation, provided the body is handled in the way prescribed in the Health Ministry’s guidelines to funeral homes.

Cleghorn was also asked to say if there was any rationale or scientific justification for prohibiting open-air pyre cremations for covid19 deaths, given that the pandemic restrictionson the number of people in attendance remain the same as for any other type of funeral. Funerals are limited to ten people in a public space.

He also provided his opinion on whether covid19 could be transmitted by smoke or the dead person’s ashes.

In his opinion, Cleghorn said after a year and a half of the pandemic, the risks from handling the bodies of covid19 cases after death “are vanishingly low.”

“The viruses in the body rapidly die off after death as they cannot be sustained. This is unlike some other important viral diseases such as Ebola, where handling of bodies can pose substantial risk, and protocols for burial are very different and require specialised and trained teams,” Cleghorn said.

He said elsewhere in the world, including India, open-pyre cremations were not banned. He also said the only way a body was capable of being infectious post-mortem was through contact with the bodily fluids of a fresh body.

“The virus dies out in a relatively short time, a matter of two-three days at most. This is also covered in the current regulations to handle bodies after death.”

Cleghorn said there were international guidelines that regulate and allow open-air cremations, “and the absence of any empirical data which suggests that there is a concern about the transmission of covid from corpses, suggests that there is no risk of the virus being transmitted via smoke or ashes from an open-air cremation. This is more of a stigma than a scientific fact.’

He also said open-air cremations “may actually be less risky” in terms of transmission and “there may be more cause for concern in an indoor cremation.

“Therefore, it is my conclusion that the available evidence does not offer any support to the regulation banning open-pyre cremations in TT,” he said.

In the “continuing drive to refine and improve the most effective evidence-based national and local response to the coronavirus pandemic," he said, "this regulation should be urgently reviewed so that it conforms to current international norms and best practice.”

On banning open-pyre cremations specifically for those who have died from covid19, he concluded. "I have found no evidence in support of this regulation, furthermore that it demonstrates an arbitrary distinction between cremations options available for such decedents and their families and has no basis in known science.”

In support of her lawsuit, Ramsaroop Persad said her father, a religious man, wanted to be cremated at the Waterloo Cremation site and his dying wish was that the rituals for Hindu cremations be performed when he died. She said she assured him she would see that his wish was honoured.

Ramsaroop’s wife, Tara, said her husband had set aside $10,000 for his cremation as he did not want to be a burden to their six children, nor did he want them to throw it in his wife’s face that they had to help her.

She said she cannot afford the $20,000 needed for a cremation and grieved for other Hindu families who are being denied the right to perform the rituals for their loved ones who may have died from covid19.

She also said it would be unfair to pick which of their children would be allowed at the cremation and, as a Hindu, she was taught that a soul cannot leave the body unless it was cremated outside.

She said she was deeply troubled as the thought of having her husband’s body remain in a cold dark room for weeks while waiting on expensive indoor cremation she and her children cannot afford was too much to endure.

She also worries that with the rate of infection and deaths in TT, she may also suffer the same fate as her husband but would want an open-air cremation.

Also providing support to the lawsuit was another woman whose mother died of covid19 in June, and pundit Satyanand Maharaj.

Last month, attorneys representing a pundit with the Sanatan Dharma Maha Sabha wrote to the minister and Chief Medical Officer Dr Roshan Parasram criticising the restriction on the right of Hindus to cremate their loved ones in an open pyre.

Attorneys Kiel Taklalsingh, Stefan Ramkissoon and Dinesh Rambally called on Deyalsingh and Parasram to reconsider and/or reverse the policy in relation to the mandatory use of crematoriums and permit covid19 victims.

In response to their letter, an attorney for the State said the ministry was working assiduously to review the restrictions and were engaged in getting the opinions from various people on the issue.

The attorneys said they were looking forward to having the issue resolved with dialogue.


"Court says covid19 patient’s daughter can challenge ban on open-pyre cremations"

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