The outbreak of the COVID-19 pandemic has meant that last rites have to be accelerated and adapted to minimise the number of people in close contact with the dead body. These changes have greatly affected the way people emotionally process and accept the death of a loved one. This short note considers the varied mortuary practices of tribal communities in the Indian subcontinent and provides some guidelines for the safety of community members, frontline workers and others who may be involved.

Tribes of South Asia

As per India’s census in 2011, tribal people constitute 8.6% of the country’s total population[1]. This translates into over 104 million people, making India the country with the largest tribal population in the world. As per government records (Anthropological Survey of India), there are 461 tribal communities out of which 174 are identified as sub-groups. Tribal populations are also found in other countries within the Indian subcontinent, namely Nepal, Bangladesh, Pakistan and Sri Lanka.

In India, tribal groups are particularly prominent in the states of Andhra Pradesh, Chhattisgarh, Gujarat, Jharkhand, Madhya Pradesh, Maharashtra, Odisha, West Bengal, the northeastern states of   Assam, Meghalaya, Tripura, Arunachal Pradesh, Mizoram, Manipur, and the islands of Andaman and Nicobar. While 89.97% live in rural areas, 10.03% reside in urban spaces.

Belief systems

Among tribals of the Indian subcontinent, cultural practices, rituals and terminologies are as varied as the number of tribes. Over centuries, the constant interaction between tribes and non-tribal people has also resulted in some melding of cultural and religious practices. Some examples are tribes like the Munda, Kharia and Oraon of Bihar, the Santal of Orissa, Bihar, and West Bengal and the Bhils of Madhya Pradesh, Gujarat, Rajasthan and Maharashtra which have been variously influenced by Hinduism, Buddhism, Christianity and Islam. Tribal groups in the Himalayas have, meanwhile, been influenced by Hinduism and Buddhism.

This has led to a vast variety of practices and an immense diversity within the ritualistic realm of practices around death. This includes but is not limited to ritual washing, cleaning and beautifying of the dead body, periods of mourning, singing, reciting stories and the establishment of megaliths or wooden poles, among others.

Mortuary practices of tribal people

Most tribal communities observe certain customs before and after the funeral. The tribes of India follow a pattern of rituals such as observances in the house of the deceased, burial or cremation, a mourning period, purification, funeral feast and so on. The variation in practices is, however, very wide. While Khasis, for example, dispose of a dead body after three days, the Gaddi tribe wait for a day for friends and relatives, and the Rengma Nagas of Nagaland give a pre-funeral feast immediately after the death of a community member[2].

Mortuary practices in the South Asia region, though varied, can be divided in two categories, burial and cremation, with variations within these groups like green burial and dry burial.   For example, the Toda tribe[3] from Tamil Nadu incorporate elements of the natural world in funeral ceremonies.

Cremation and burial are both common in tribal communities across South Asia, but the details of the rites vary depending on beliefs, community, caste, gender and the age of the dead. This document in no way looks to comment of mortuary rituals but is aimed at protecting the lives of family and community members who may be confronted with the death of a COVID-19 patient.

ICRC guidance

The ICRC guidance on management of the dead during COVID-19 aims to protect the lives of healthcare workers, body handlers and the rest of the community. With proper preparation and planning, the safety of healthcare workers on the frontline of the response can be ensured as well as the dignity of those who are confirmed/believed to have died due to COVID-19.

  • Apart from physical distancing and avoiding contact, the ICRC advocates caution with respect to the handling of COVID-19 dead bodies, since it remains unclear for how long the risk of infection from the dead body or bodily fluids persists.
  • If the family members wish to see the body, they should use personal protective equipment (PPE) to do so before the body is bagged.
  • PPE must be used by those handling the dead. The body of a deceased person must be completely wrapped in a leakage proof body bag (or double-bagged) before being moved to the mortuary or burial grounds.
  • The body bag(s) should not be opened again prior to cremation or burial.
  • Bodies should not be embalmed or injected with preservatives. The process of embalming can result in the unnecessary manipulation of the body that may expel fluid from the body’s cavity and/or result in aerosolisation leading to an increased risk for those performing such procedure.
  • Ritual washing can be performed as normal for COVID-19 victims, provided that the necessary protective measures are put in place. Forensic guidance includes wearing complete PPE – including gloves, gown, a waterproof apron, face shield and goggles, and a mask – as well as avoiding direct contact with blood or bodily fluids, making sure that wounds are covered with waterproof bandages, and avoiding contact with the face and mouth, as well as food, drink, or eating and drinking utensils.
  • Shrouding should be done only if there is no risk of infection and provided that the necessary protective measures are put in place.
  • Prayers can be performed at the grave or the cremation site after the burial/cremation of the dead.
  • Alternatively, absentee funeral prayers can be performed on COVID-19 victims.
  • Non-essential complete autopsies need not be performed.
  • Every effort should be made to ensure reliable documentation, identification and traceability of the dead so as to avoid misidentification and trauma for loved ones.
  • While dead body management and funeral rites should be adapted to maintain social and physical distancing, hasty and careless disposal of the bodies must be avoided.
  • Irrespective of whether the body is infectious or not, there is a chance that family members of the deceased are infected. Gatherings at home, hospitals, mortuary and funerals are highly inadvisable regardless of how the dead body is handled and have sometimes been banned.
  • Those who attend the funeral must safely dispose of the PPE and properly practice hand hygiene by washing themselves with soap, water or alcohol-based sanitizer.

[1] Ministry Of Tribal Affairs Statistics Division, 2013, Statistical profile of Scheduled tribes In india

[2] Lalita Prasad Vidyarthi, Binay Kumar Rai, 1976, The Tribal Culture of India, pg 297

[3] Funeral Ritual of South India Tribe Brings Members Together, Keeps Traditions Alive

Read more on dignified management of the dead during COVID-19:

COVID-19: Hinduism and Management of the Dead