Let families face inevitable grief, unmixed with needless extra regret

It is hoped that those who died will be sent off with heartfelt feelings and precious memories. That sentiment should not change even if the deceased was infected with the novel coronavirus.

The Health, Labor and Welfare Ministry intends to ease restrictions on guidelines governing the handling of bodies of infected people. The main points of the revision are to assume that a funeral will be held and to eliminate the need for body bags, according to the ministry.

The current guidelines were drawn up 2½ years ago with the aim of preventing infections among bereaved families, medical personnel and workers in the funeral business. The recommended measures, such as using body bags and refraining from direct contact with the bodies, were intended to avoid infections via contact with body fluids.

This has led to many cases in which bodies were cremated without bereaved family members being able to see them. In some cases, only a limited number of people were allowed to attend the funeral, or a funeral itself was not allowed. Considering the feelings of the bereaved families, a review of the guidelines is deemed quite natural, and can be said to have come too late.

Even when bereaved families were allowed near the bodies, they were not able to see the faces of their departed loved ones if the bodies were sealed in body bags. The ministry had asked funeral businesses to use transparent bags, but the request was not thoroughly followed due to a lack of supply caused by a surge in the number of infected people.

Because the infection was caused by a new type of virus, there were many unknowns at first, and strict infection control measures were in some ways unavoidable. But the situation surrounding the coronavirus has greatly changed since then.

Currently, the omicron variant, which is less likely to cause severe illness, has become the mainstream form of infection, and restrictions on daily activities have been eased. The initially feared risk of contact infection is now known to be extremely low. Funeral guidelines also need to be adapted to changing circumstances.

The key to reviewing the guidelines going forward is to consider how to practically implement the revised contents. The ministry is in the process of finalizing the review of the guidelines with the funeral industry, but some deeply cautious opinions reportedly remain.

Amid the eighth wave of infections, in which the number of new cases has surpassed 100,000 daily, people involved remain concerned about the spread of the infectious disease. If fears remain, they could continue to overreact to the disease. It is crucial for the central government to make efforts to thoroughly explain the aim of the revision and to extend understanding to the people on the front line.

When people experience involuntary separation from a loved one, they suffer emotional trauma. To lose a loved one without adequate access to hospitals or other facilities increases their regret.

Funerals are the last opportunity for bereaved families to spend time with the deceased. Funerals also serve as a demarcation point from which to embark on their post-separation lives and also a time to heal their grief.

In an era of living with the coronavirus, it is vital to devise suitable ways to arrange the settings in which bereaved families part with loved ones.

(From The Yomiuri Shimbun, Dec. 30, 2022)