Funeral guidance for COVID victims to be eased

Yomiuri Shimbun file photo
Body bags are seen at a public health center in Hokkaido in April 2020.

Funeral guidelines for COVID-19 victims are set to be eased, according to a draft compiled by the Health, Labor, and Welfare Ministry.

Under the current guidelines, corpses are supposed to be kept in body bags as part of measures to mitigate the spread of the disease, but this advice is expected to be scrapped.

The ministry established the current guidelines in July 2020 to prevent the spread of coronavirus among family members, medical staff and funeral service personnel.

The eased guidelines will allow mourners to say farewell in a manner similar to that before the pandemic.

The ministry is in the final stages of coordination with industry groups and the guidelines are expected to be revised by the end of the year.

Even though deceased victims cannot spread droplet infections, direct contact with corpses is not advised as a precautionary measure under the current guidance.

According to the current guidelines, funeral operators are asked to assess whether it is possible to hold wakes and funeral ceremonies, and to recommend holding such events online.

Amid the pandemic, many cremations have been carried out without opportunities for family members to view the bodies of their loved ones.

The ministry’s draft states that the risk of infection is extremely low if appropriate measures are taken, so deceased COVID-19 victims can be handled in a manner similar to that of other corpses, and body bags are unnecessary if the deceased has no external injuries or other problems.

It also states that wakes and funerals will be held, in principle.

Advice to refrain from directly touching corpses is expected to be omitted in the revised guidelines, but mourners will be urged to disinfect their hands if they do so.

Under the current guidelines, mourners who have had close contact with COVID-19 patients are urged to refrain from attending funerals and cremations.

The draft of the revised guidelines states that close-contacts will be allowed to attend ceremonies if masks are worn and other infection-control measures are taken.

It also states that crematoriums will not have to hold cremations of COVID-19 victims at separate times and there will be no capacity restrictions.

A ritual in which mourners place cremated remains in a vessel will also be allowed under the revised guidelines.

Medical and funeral staff who handle the corpses of COVID-19 victims will still be expected to wear protective gear and gloves, and mourners will be asked to wear masks and take other basic infection measures.

As the dominant omicron coronavirus variant has a low risk of causing serious symptoms, the government has been striving to restore social and economic activities to pre-pandemic levels, while striking a balance with infection control measures.

As a result, calls have been increasing to allow mourners to bid a final farewell to loved ones in person.

Health ministry officials have been working with experts to revise the funeral guidelines since October when health minister Katsunobu Kato announced plans to update them.