Unfathomable despair and sadness.
This is the common lament of families and relatives of those who died recently from common ailments as local health authorities are presuming the departed to have succumbed to the coronavirus and thus needs to be buried in 12 hours according to COVID-19 protocol.
Last March 26, 2020, two days before his quarantine period would have ended, a Person Under Monitoring (PUM) in Baras town died in his home in barangay Sta. Maria after suffering from tightness of breathing and stomach pain.
According to sources familiar with the incident, the man had been nursing various ailments for some time but when he succumbed to what family members said was a heart attack, his demise was treated as that of a confirmed COVID-19 case.
The municipal government reportedly ordered the burial of the man’s body, which had already been placed inside a body bag, within 12 hours of his death.
The family, however, sought financial assistance for the construction of a tomb at the cemetery, which understandably could not be done outright as it was already evening. Interment, minus the usual Mass at the parish church and even the traditional sprinkling of holy water before burial, was made the following morning, March 27.
On that same Friday, a resident of Virac, a diabetic who had been ailing for some time, died on his sickbed, with the grieving family informed by authorities that he would have to be interred within 12 hours.
In contrast, the families of three recently deceased individuals in the coastal barangay of Balite were allowed several days to mourn the loss of their loved ones.
One of them, a victim of a hacking incident last March 24, was buried three days later, along with another person who had died on March 21. The third, who also died March 24, is still being accorded the traditional “lamay” before his interment.
To make matters worse for those told to bury their dead before the end of 12 hours, only the members of the immediate family are allowed to attend the funeral. No Mass will be said at the home or funeral parlor, with the Mass instead celebrated by a priest at an empty church. Only when the coffin is already at the cemetery will the priest come to say prayers and sprinkle holy water on the dead.
Apparently, the only instance when a Mass could be said at the home where the deceased lies in state would be if an immediate family member is a priest.
“Kamumundo,” said one member of a deceased’s family, describing as “unfair” the authorities’ allowing the families of other dead residents to hold wakes at their homes for at least three days.
Last Feb. 3, 2020, the Department of Health (DOH) issued Department Memorandum No. 2020-0067 providing guidelines for the Disposal and Shipment of the Remains of Confirmed Cases of 2019 Novel Coronavirus Acute Respiratory Disease (2019-nCoV ARD).
This has been superseded, however, by Memorandum Circular No. 2020-063 issued by the Department of the Interior and Local Government (DILG) last March 27, 2020.
The circular specifically states that it specified a standard process on properly managing human remains of Patient Under Investigation (PUI) and confirmed COVID-19 cases.
In the case of PUIs and/or COVID-19 positive persons who died at a referral facility or hospital, hospital health workers shall process the remains and provide appropriate post-mortem care, with PPE-equipped staff of the funeral home to place the body in a leak-proof, airtight cadaver bag. There will be no embalming of the remains or hygienic preparation such as cleaning of the body, tidying of hair, trimming of nails and shaving.
The remains will have to be placed in a durable, airtight and sealed casket and then buried within 12 hours after death, preferably through cremation. Viewing of the deceased shall not be permitted and only adult members of the family may be permitted to attend the funeral.
LGUs shall designate and commission reputable funeral parlors to handle the remains and provide possible financial assistance to cover the logistics, fuel, salary and other expenses that will be incurred, including the transfer or transport of the remains.
Likewise, the Department of Social Welfare and Development (DSWD) has been ordered to provide a funeral support fund of P25,000 to poor people who succumbed to the disease (both confirmed and PUIs), regardless if they were under home quarantine or admitted in a hospital.
In the case of PUIs under home quarantine as well as a symptomatic person who died with similar COVID-19 symptoms, it will be the Management of the Dead and Missing Person (MDM) team composed of LGU and national agency representatives who will manage the disposition of the remains.
Disinfection of the body before placement in the cadaver bag shall be done while the household shall be advised to clean and disinfect the room occupied by the deceased immediately after removal, with all soiled linens used by the deceased to be properly disposed of.
In the absence of a refrigerated mortuary on the island, the dead body will be placed in a sealed casket and buried in the cemetery at least 25 meters from any residential area.
In below-ground burial, the grave shall be at least 1.5 meters deep and filled well and firmly. No burial shall be done in an area where the water table is less than 2 meters deep from the natural ground surface. The remains shall not be exhumed within five years from burial.
“All Non-COVID-19 related deaths shall be attended to, applying the usual processes of the concerned Local Government Unit,” the guideline states.
According to Anavi F. Camacho, officer-in-charge of the Philippine Statistics Authority (PSA) in Catanduanes, at least 17 individuals have died in the towns of Bagamanoc (2), Bato (4), Caramoran (3), Panganiban (2), Viga (2) and Virac (4) since the Luzon-wide quarantine began.
There was no available data from the towns of Baras, Gigmoto, Pandan, San Andres, and San Miguel as the Local Civil Registry Offices there were closed while the data from Virac was up to March 18 only.