AP PHOTOS: Virus alters way Turks mourn and bury their dead

ISTANBUL (AP) — In a special section of Istanbul’s Baklaci cemetery set aside for COVID-19 victims, a gaggle of workers well outnumbered the three mourners — the maximum number of relatives allowed to attend the burial of Munever Kaya.

Their unenviable task was to intervene and remind the bereaved of social distancing rules whenever grief and the relentless urge for a friendly human touch overcame them.

Like elsewhere, the pandemic has changed the way Turks bury and mourn their dead.

On some occasions, funeral prayers have been held at the graveside instead of in mosques, as is the normal custom. Mourners must stand well apart and wear masks.

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Traditional “mevlit” ceremonies — a kind of wake held at the home of the deceased where a poem on the Prophet Muhammad is read — have also suffered due to the restrictions on gatherings.

Meanwhile, travel restrictions force many families to bury their loved ones in the place where they died, instead of taking the bodies back to hometowns or villages as decreed by tradition.

“On some occasions, we have buried the dead ourselves because no family or friends could be present,” explained Safak Cevirme, deputy head of the Istanbul Cemeteries Directorate.

Despite its high rate of coronavirus infections, Turkey’s death toll is relatively low and morgues have not been overwhelmed, unlike in other hotspots such as Italy or Spain.

Still, concerns over the safe handling of COVID-19 victims’ bodies are high.

At Zincirlikuyu, one of Istanbul’s main morgues, officials who wash and prepare bodies for burial according to Islamic tradition wear hazmat suits and other protective equipment.

“We have always followed strict guidelines but overalls, goggles and face shields have now been added,” Cevirme said. “Our personnel are among those under the highest risk of infection, after health workers.”

A number of morgue workers and burial officials in Istanbul were infected but all have recovered, he said, adding that all personnel are offered psychological support to cope with the strain.

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Fraser reported from Ankara, Turkey.

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