Issues related to those who have died from the coronavirus:
washing their bodies, their burial and funeral prayers
Some community workers have put to me some questions concerning those who have died as a result of infection by the coronavirus:
Since the bodies (and the inside and outside of the body bags in which they are delivered) of Muslims who died because of covid-19 are still contagious and there is a high risk of being infected when doing either ghusl or tayammum for the deceased, is it permissible for us to do the funeral prayer for them and bury them without doing ghusl or tayammum?
Can we do salat al-gha’ib for the funeral since only a very limited number of persons can attend the salat al-janazah?
Is it permissible to bury more than one body in one grave?
Is it permissible for Muslims to be buried in a non-Muslim graveyard if there is no more space in Muslim graveyards?
In normal circumstances it is obligatory to wash the body of the deceased, and if, for some valid reason, ghusl is not possible, then tayammum should be done. This is part of the respect due to the deceased. However, these are not normal circumstances; these are conditions of emergency.
I have consulted some medical experts working with coronavirus victims, and they are unanimous that the risks of contagion while doing ghusl or tayammum are very serious. Reliably safe Personal Protective Equipment (PPE) is not available to the volunteers who do the ghusl. The experts also advise that it is highly unlikely that any of the volunteers are trained to use PPE safely, even if protective equipment of the required standards were available to them, which is also highly unlikely. This advice comes against the background of widespread concern that even NHS staff are not getting PPE of the necessary standard, and are forced to attend patients unprotected.
With this high risk in mind I advise burying the body without ghusl or tayammum because, according to the established principle of Islamic law, to avoid or remove a known and serious harm (here, the risk of spreading the infection to the living) must be preferred to realising a benefit (here, cleansing the body of the deceased).
Of course, the janazah prayer should be done even if the ghusl/tayammum is not.
Salat al-janazah is a fard kifayah. This means that if a minimum number (two people) have done it then there is no sin on the rest of community. But still, many people want to attend the funeral prayer of their relatives and friends. We must respect their feelings, and hence it is allowed for them to do salat al-gha’ib after those permitted to attend the funeral have done the prayer. The Prophet did salat al-gha’ib on Najashi (recorded in Sahih al-Bukhari), and Imam Shafi`i, Imam Ahmad and many other scholars have permitted this.
In normal conditions, the sunnah is to bury one person in one grave. But if the number of the dead becomes high as in these days because of the coronavirus pandemic, more than one can be buried in the same grave. The Prophet buried two or more than two in the same grave after the battle of Uhud (recorded in Sahih al-Bukhari and other books of hadith).
Similarly, if there is no room in a graveyard set aside for Muslims, then Muslims may be buried in a non-Muslim graveyard. What honours and benefits people in the hereafter is their faith and good deeds. So even if they were buried in a non-Muslim graveyard they will be raised according to their faith and deeds in the company of the believers.