By Brenda Goh
JINGZHOU, China, March 30 (Reuters) – Ten unused urns are in the crematorium in Jingzhou, a city in central China’s Hubei province that has been severely affected by the coronavirus.
Not only are funerals banned across China, even in places like Jingzhou, survivors stuck in their homes have to wait until they find the remains of their relatives.
The ashes of the dead “are in our care for the time being because their family members are in quarantine or are gone and cannot return yet,” said the director of the Jingzhou Crematorium, who only called his surname Sheng. since he was not allowed to speak to the media.
“No parting, no ceremonies are allowed,” said Sheng Reuters matter-of-factly in his office in the bare cream-colored building.
The corona virus infected more than half a million people and killed around 25,000 people in more than 200 countries. In China, where it started, the virus not only changed everyday life, but also how the dead are removed due to their highly contagious nature.
Regardless of the cause of death, China’s survivors have not been able to hold funerals since February 1, even if the nation’s outbreak wanes, including in Hubei, where the virus broke out in December.
For families, none of the complex and soothing rituals that are full of childlike piety to ensure a peaceful journey to the afterlife is: night watches, white mourning dresses, visitors who may pay their last respects to the carefully dressed body in the coffin, Taoist or Buddhist prayers .
A funeral home in Jingzhou was quiet. Hazmat suits hung outside a room where workers carrying corpses from the hospital to the crematorium were taking a nap.
It is even more lonely for families in quarantine because they cannot even honor the ashes of the dead.
“What have we done to deserve such punishment?” Wang Wenjun in Hubei’s provincial capital, Wuhan, told Reuters last month after her family had to wait 15 days for the ashes of her uncle, who died from COVID-19 pneumonia caused by the new coronavirus.
Without funerals, Sheng employees, like crematorium staff in large parts of China, immediately get to work, some in full surgical outfits with blue overalls and hair covers such as blue shower caps.
“In the past, before the epidemic, there was a vigil of up to three days and we would do our job after that,” said Sheng, a red Chinese flag pin on the lapel of his white lab dress.
“But now if the person dies, the hospital will do the disinfection and the cremation will take place right after.”
The staff at the facility where Sheng has been working for 29 years are now working around the clock in the event of a call from the hospital in the middle of the night to pick up the body of a coronavirus victim, he said. Previously, they cremated bodies in the morning.
“The hospital workers work very hard, but so do the funeral directors,” he said.
The recent slowdown has been limited by the slowing down of cases of domestic viruses and a decrease in fatalities as a severe restriction on driving behavior.
Of the eight ovens in the crematorium, one is dedicated to the victims of the coronavirus, whose families may not see the body before it is cremated.
For people who die from the disease at home, workers in full protective gear are asked to do a quick pickup, he said. “Maybe it has something to do with the air, we don’t know why.”
China has reported more than 81,000 coronavirus infections and 3,300 deaths, mainly in Wuhan, where the virus is believed to have first infected people in a fish market.
Jingzhou, a traffic and tourism center with 6 million residents, 220 km west of Wuhan, is Hubei’s sixth worst hit city with 1,580 infections and 52 deaths – half of these bodies were cremated at Sheng’s facility, he says.
China’s locally-borne infections have recently declined sharply, the government says – Wuhan has only reported one new coronavirus case in the past 10 days. The United States now has more cases than China, and Italy and Spain have more fatalities.
The sharp slowdown has given Beijing confidence to ease draconian barriers and travel restrictions to contain the virus. Hubei started on Tuesday to let the residents leave the province, although people have not yet been admitted.
Sheng has not yet received an official announcement when life in Jingzhou Crematorium could normalize. Maybe by the end of April, he says.
The quarantines remain for the time being and the simple, state-supplied urns are in place. (Reporting by Brenda Goh; editor of William Mallard)