Death in the time of coronavirus

Yesterday, I attended a funeral. No, the death was not connected to the novel coronavirus which causes the Covid-19 disease now raging throughout the world.

H Mogan Rao died of kidney failure at the age of 59 at his Rawang home. When I went to his house, he was lying in bed with a very calm look, surrounded by weeping relatives.

He was an energetic man, sometimes even boisterous, before kidney failure put him on dialysis treatment and considerably weakened him.

When my wife told me he had died in his sleep, I wondered if it was possible he had been infected by the Covid-19 virus that had taken 10 lives in Malaysia as of yesterday, and more than 13,000 worldwide. For doctors tell us that those with existing medical conditions are more at risk of dying from the virus.

I was informed by his family members that the Kuala Lumpur Hospital staff had done a test on him and found him to be Covid-19 negative before putting him on a dialysis machine only a day earlier.

Mogan’s wife is my wife’s sister. So, despite the travel restrictions of the movement control order (MCO) and the advice to stay home, we felt we had to go and pay our last respects.

Because of the MCO, the drive was a breeze as there was little traffic on the road. And because of the MCO, too, only close family members and a handful of friends were at the house, and fewer still at the crematorium.

What a time to die, I thought. Mogan was one of those cheerful persons who would stick his neck out for family and friends. His siblings loved him, and I won’t be wrong in saying that there was no one who disliked him. He had many friends, especially in Rawang where he had been born and bred.

On any other day, I am sure there would have been a huge crowd at the funeral. But yesterday was not a normal day, for the country has been in a partial lockdown since March 18.

Even those who came were afraid the police might turn them away at roadblocks. I was stopped at a roadblock and had to explain that I was returning from a funeral. The policeman waved me on.

Rawang police advised his family to keep the funeral low-key and confine it to as few people as possible. Which is why they did not inform all his friends and many of his relatives. Some of those who were informed understandably did not come due to the current situation.

And yes, almost everyone present had masks: at the crematorium, it was compulsory. Most also made good use of the sanitisers placed at the entrance, and a few of those who came wore gloves.

Although the atmosphere was somewhat subdued, his family ensured that the rites were conducted according to tradition.

I have been to his house – and attended his family functions – on numerous occasions and found him to be a convivial host. In fact, just a few days before the MCO was implemented, my family and I visited him and enjoyed a delicious lunch cooked by his wife Ratna.

Ratna, his daughters, siblings and nephews and nieces simply adored him, so it was not surprising to see many of them, especially the women, weeping and weeping. He was not just a good husband and father, but a good brother and friend too.

As I looked at the funeral crowd, I wondered how it would have been for the families of the 10 people in Malaysia who had died of Covid-19 infection. Their situation is very sad indeed, as they are not allowed to go near the bodies of those who had passed on.

I understand that health department staff take care of the burial of Covid-19 victims and that the family can only watch from a distance.

What sorrow, what agony, those families would be going through. It is bad enough that the person is dead but to not be able to give him or her a normal burial by family members can be devastating.

I have seen news clips of bodies being carried in trucks in Italy – the worst hit at the moment by the Covid-19 contagion – and news of mass burials in Iran, where the virus has wreaked havoc too, and I cannot imagine how painful it would be for those family members.

That is even worse than being allowed to witness the burial from a distance, as in Malaysia. I pray we do not reach the stage of Italy or Iran.

And in relation to the burials of Covid-19 victims, at least Mogan’s family was able to give him a proper send-off. At 59, Mogan was too young to die, given the increasing lifespan of people these days.

But birth and death are not in our hands – only the interim is.

The views expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of FMT.