For over a decade, Mohamad Faisal Johan and his colleague Abang Biku Abang Kadir have been managing death for Muslims at a cemetery in Kuching, Sarawak.
Duties are divided between the two of them: Abang Biku manages the funeral rituals while Faisal handles the preparation of grave sites.
Aside from digging the graves, they are also responsible for cleaning them, mowing the lawn, and maintaining the general condition of the Semariang Muslim Cemetery.
“All works are carried out once we receive the death report from family members,” Abang Biku told MalaysiaNow.
On a normal day, he estimates that the team digs about eight graves. “But there are days when we have to dig 10 graves and days when we dig none at all, simply because there are no deaths,” he added.
He and Faisal have been in this line of work for a long time. But when Covid-19 hit the country, their years of experience were put to the test as SOPs and the viral nature of the infections changed the way things had always been done.
Even the way graves for Covid-19 victims are dug changed as new measures were put in place to keep any transmission of the virus at bay.
“Graves need to be dug eight to 10 feet deep,” Faisal, who oversees all preparations for burial sites, said. This is much bigger than the measurements used for normal graves, and it takes far longer to dig.
“Preparing burial sites usually takes two to three hours of digging,” he said. “But for Covid-19 bodies, it can take up to six hours because we have to follow the guidelines endorsed by the state mufti.”
This is often time that the team does not have. To minimise the risk of the virus spreading, they sometimes resort to using machinery to finish digging the grave.
“We must be able to complete the task within a short time,” Faisal said, adding that the grave-digging and burial process must go on regardless of the weather.
Many of the other aspects of funerals and burials for Covid-19 victims are handled by the hospital authorities but the weight of responsibility on Faisal and his team still leaves them scrambling much of the time.
But despite the extra steps and longer hours of work that accompany the physical part of dealing with deaths during the pandemic, the biggest adjustment that Faisal and Abang Biku have had to make is in consoling friends and relatives who must say their good-byes from afar.
Under Covid-19 SOPs, attendance at funerals is strictly limited.
“The situation is different now, especially for deaths caused by Covid-19,” they said.
“Even after the burial is over and the ambulance has left, the number of people gathering is still limited.”
This takes a huge emotional toll on family members and friends.
Afyza, 38, lost her husband to cancer on May 12, the eve of Hari Raya. She says she was fortunate to be able to accompany him on his final journey to the cemetery, although she described the process as “very much like touch and go”.
“The situation is different now, especially for deaths caused by Covid-19.”
“I am thankful because most of our family members were able to follow his last journey to the grave, although it was not like a normal funeral where your friends are allowed to attend,” the mother-of-five told MalaysiaNow.
“But that sense of loss is irreplaceable,” she added.
Faisal and Abang Biku are familiar with scenes of grief but they agree that SOPs make things much more difficult.
“It’s hard to let go, knowing that you are unable to bury your family members and have to say your final good-byes from afar,” they said. “It’s heartbreaking.”
It also makes their job much harder, as they have to ensure that everyone present abides by the SOPs.
“But we have to stay focused so that we can complete the task. We understand that it’s difficult for them. But even if it’s a difficult thing to do, we will tell them respectfully.
“We hope they can bear with us. We all have our roles to play in fighting this war against Covid-19.”