In the Muslim-majority republics of Russia's North Caucasus region, most celebrations and commemorations are observed en masse. Weddings are held on a lavish scale, while the mosques are always full for Friday prayers. A wake can draw hundreds of people.
But COVID-19 has hit the region hard. And despite restrictions, locals are determined to bury their loved ones the proper way – making funerals hotbeds of infection.
Tezet in the time of coronavirus
In May, a woman died at a hospital in Ingushetia. The cause of her death was recorded as a thromboembolism, or detached blood clot, although the deceased had stayed in the same building as COVID-19 patients, and had been admitted with symptoms of the virus. Her relatives were not given her remains. Instead, her corpse was washed with bleach, wrapped in polythene, and buried in a cemetery. Her relatives were not present. On the same day, as tradition demands, the woman's family held a Tezet in her honour, which lasted three days. Among those who received condolences was the deceased's daughter, who was showing symptoms of COVID-19.
Dozens of people turned up to pay their respects.
A funeral, including the obligatory washing of the corpse, is an important tradition for Muslims. It is followed by a wake, which is known in the North Caucasus as a tezit, tazit, or taziyat. Although the hard realities of the pandemic have forced some changes to these traditions, they do not go as far as Russia's prominent Islamic clerics would like. The dead are still taken to be buried in ancestral villages, where relatives from other regions flock to attend the funeral. In the North Caucasus, recommendations for autopsies or cremation provoked fury and condemnation. For many believers in a devout region of the country, this was unacceptable.
The COVID-19 death rate and difficulties presented by funerals raise many questions, particularly given the opacity of official statistics and local traditions alike. oDR spoke with people from Chechnya, Dagestan, and Ingushetia who have lost friends and family members to the pandemic.
Their stories show just how dangerous a funeral during the height of a pandemic can really be.
"He was just old"
On March 27, when Russia was seized by panic due to the spread of COVID-19, Friday prayers were held at the Akhmad Kadyrov Mosque in Grozny, the capital of Chechnya. Despite the fact that the local authorities had already declared restrictions (closing restaurants and other public spaces), about a thousand people arrived at the mosque. Half of them wore face masks. The mosque could not accommodate all the worshipers; many had to pray by its walls on the street outside. This is not uncommon: often worshipers fill the entire street near the mosque, and sometimes part of a nearby square.
This was to be the last Friday prayer. Shortly thereafter, they were banned in Chechnya.
Ten days later, in the village of Novye Atagi, the funeral of a respected elderly local took place. Several hundred people gathered to mourn Akhmad Garayev. It was later discovered that Garayev's relatives had been infected with COVID-19. More than a hundred people who attended the funeral picked up the virus.
At this time, mass public events were already banned in Chechnya.
Relatives do not recognise the need for a doctor's examination. If a doctor arrives to determine the cause of death, he takes their words as fact
In early May, COVID-19 came to a street in Grozny's Zavodsky district. Several residents died. Imran (pseudonym) knew one of the victims, though he did not attend his neighbour's wake. It was impolite, but Imran chose to stick with self-isolation instead – he lives with his children and elderly parents.
Only close relatives turned up to bid farewell to the deceased – 10-15 people. Among Chechens, the term "close relative" has a broader meaning; it includes aunts, uncles, cousins, and even second cousins. The death was recorded by the local policeman, who came to the deceased's home.
Soon afterwards, the father-in-law of one of Imran's brothers passed away. His brother's wife was not allowed to attend the wake; she would have had to travel to an ancestral village, a trip her relatives felt was too risky. When asked about the cause of death, Imran responds simply: "He was just old." In the North Caucasus, elderly people usually pass away at home. Relatives do not recognise the need for a doctor's examination. If a doctor arrives to determine the cause of death, he takes their words as fact.
The traditional mass funerals and wakes are no longer held in Chechnya today. Everything lies in the hands of the local government official, imam, and qadi (Islamic judge). "So that crowds don't form. They make sure that you just turn up, offer your condolences, and then leave right away. There's not a word about autopsies – they're forbidden, and that's that," says Imran, who is himself a graduate of a medical university in neighbouring Ingushetia. "The dean of our medical faculty was old school. He was all for conducting autopsies without fail, justifying this by saying that many murders were covered up. And he was a local – an Ingush."
The COVID-19 pandemic has raised questions about how to conduct autopsies in observant Muslim communities. In Russia, autopsies of patients with suspected viral infections must be carried out immediately, in order to conclusively diagnose the cause of death – even if family members of the deceased requested no autopsy on religious grounds (these provisions can be found in the appendix to the Ministry of Health's order of June 5, 2013, N354n.) Furthermore, the Spiritual Administration of the Muslims of Russia even issued a fatwa (an Islamic legal decree – ed.) on holding funerals during a pandemic. The fatwa expressly permits a postmortem examination of the body as well as burial in a coffin without ablutions. It even allows cremation of the body if necessary.
In practice, things are different. The Spiritual Administration of the Muslims of Russia does not hold sway over all the country's Muslim communities. It can only make recommendations; local Islamic clerics and structures have more influence on the ground. Thus the Mufti of Chechnya, Salah Mezhiev, announced that it was still necessary to honour the dead in accordance with traditional Islamic practice: washing the body, prayers, and then burial.
Mezhiev later called upon women not to attend wakes out of concern for their health. Traditionally, women congregate in a separate room during the funeral and do not visit the cemetery.
Once the COVID-19 pandemic began, the regional authorities in Chechnya took control of burials themselves. The bodies of COVID-19 victims are treated in a morgue, where they are washed with bleach and wrapped in cellophane. Workers in protective suits then bury the body in a grave. Those who died in hospital and exhibited the early stages of the virus, but were never confirmed to be infected, have also been buried in the same manner – as stated by several people who recently lost relatives.
Meanwhile, nobody arrives to examine the bodies of those who die at home; no autopsy is performed even in cases where the deceased showed clear signs of COVID-19 infection.
"I heard that the issue was being discussed, but it was decided that as we haven't done autopsies in a century, now was no time to start," said one employee of the local Ministry of Health on condition of anonymity. The health worker added that nowhere in Chechnya has the facilities to examine such numbers of bodies. There is only one morgue in Grozny; only corpses showing clear signs of violent deaths are brought there to be examined.
A feast in times of plague
The first confirmed diagnosis of COVID-19 in Ingushetia was made on April 3. On April 11, the Mufti of Ingushetia, Abdurahman Martazanov, passed away. Before succumbing to the virus himself, Martazanov provided recommendations on how to treat the bodies of those who died during the pandemic. The corpse had to be washed in hospital by people wearing protective suits. People were not to gather in the cemetery and not to conduct mass wakes.
The mufti was buried in his ancestral village in compliance with the same rules he had prescribed. He was one of the first victims of the virus in Ingushetia.
"After that, the deaths were constant. But I doubt that everybody was buried according to [Martazanov's] recommendations," says Isabella Yevloyeva, a journalist from Ingushetia. In mid-May, Isabella's mother was hospitalised showing symptoms of the virus. In the hospital where she is being treated, says the journalist, many patients are displaying the first symptoms of COVID-19, but do not have a final diagnosis. These patients also die, but from other causes: a blood clot or cardiac arrest. Regardless of the cause of death, the body of every patient who dies is washed with bleach in a special room, wrapped in plastic, and taken to a cemetery. Once again, the body is not handed over to family members.
"Yesterday, a woman died of a blood clot in the infectious diseases ward. She was buried the same way. But her relatives still held a fully-fledged tezet; there were no masks or any other means of staying safe. The deceased woman also had COVID-19; her daughter became ill but then recovered. Now she's sick again, but she still interacts with those who come to offer their condolences. Wakes continue to be held in Ingushetia; here they usually last between three and seven days. My mum says that [this woman's] entire family has since become ill, but guests still arrive at their house, where they pick up the virus and then spread it elsewhere," says Isabella.
But there are also some families with no such scruples – they hold a three-day feast during a plague
Just as in Chechnya, many people in Ingushetia die at home. These special rules do not apply to their funerals. "They're buried the normal way, although their funerals aren't quite as large as before. Recently, my father-in-law attended one to offer his condolences, but was barely allowed beyond the cemetery gates; they thanked him and asked him to go home," continues Isabella.
"The district hospital in Nazran (the largest city in Ingushetia – ed.) and the Ingush Republic Clinical Hospital, which were both assigned to treat COVID-19 patients, were allocated special areas for washing bodies for the very first time. Specially trained doctors performed the ablutions according to Islamic practice and returned the bodies to relatives in a plastic covering. However, nobody from the authorities regulates funerals and wakes. People still gather to offer their condolences. If the relatives are at all conscientious, they accept condolences and quickly send people on their way. But there are also some with no such scruples – they hold a three-day feast during a plague, where they hand out meat to all the guests," says Yevloyeva.
When sick people pass away in their homes, nobody can say their cause of the death for certain. In Ingushetia, as in Chechnya and Dagestan, autopsies are prohibited under Islamic tradition. This issue is compounded by the difficulty of diagnosing COVID-19 infections in Ingushetia. Local doctors complain of a small number of available testing kits and even a ban on taking a smear test without permission from Rospotrebnadzor (the Russian state's healthcare and consumer rights watchdog – ed.) A local police officer simply records that somebody died outside the hospital, close relatives wash the corpse, recite prayers over the body, wrap it in a shroud, and take it to a cemetery the same day. After that a tezet is held, including the obligation to hand cuts of meat to those who turn up at the house to offer condolences. The gate onto the street and the front door are kept open so that anybody can turn up and express their sorrow. That means that several hundred people can take part in a wake. Therefore, holding tezets was prohibited after the outbreak of the COVID-19 pandemic, along with Friday prayers and weddings.
Holding a Zikr was also banned.
A Zikr is a Sufi Muslim rite in which men perform a devotional dance. It is held in a small room; over the course of the dance the temperature and humidity of the room start to rise. The stuffy, humid air makes a Zikr the ideal place for the virus to spread.
The Zikr was one of the first Islamic customs which the authorities banned in Chechnya and Ingushetia during the pandemic. However, the ban has not been observed in Ingushetia. Isabella adds that Ingush have continued to hold Zikrs; an audio message even circulated on social networks alleging that holding a Zikr can kill the virus due to the warm temperature it generates. "During the first wave of infections, many Haji-Murids (members of the Sufi clergy, mostly present in Chechnya and Ingushetia – ed.) did not pay attention to the recommendations and held Zikrs anyway. And these were not regulated by anybody," explains Yevloyeva.
The Memorial Human Rights Centre, which recently conducted a monitoring of the COVID-19 situation in the North Caucasus, also has information about Zikrs during the pandemic. The NGO was also informed about mass tezets and cases where patients with obvious COVID-19 symptoms died at home. "There have been cases in Ingushetia when hospital patients are returned home and die there. Even when there is every reason to think that these are coronavirus cases, they're handed over to their relatives at home," remarks Oleg Orlov, the head of Memorial's North Caucasus regional branch.
As far as is known, the last large-scale funeral and wake in Ingushetia took place on May 15. More than a hundred people turned up to part ways with the religious leader Akhmed Sultigov. The mourners, who were mostly elderly men, stood in a circle, shoulder to shoulder, around the body. Only a few of them wore masks.
When asked about how compliance with quarantine measures was monitored, Ingushetia's Ministry of Internal Affairs responded simply that they could not offer any comment as it was the government's remit. Attempts to make contact with the Ingush government's press office were not successful.
"To be absent is unacceptable"
On May 10, Magomed's father-in-law died in a hospital in Makhachkala, the capital of Dagestan. After he was diagnosed with COVID-19, he spent a week hooked up to a ventilator. He could not be saved. Magomed (pseudonym) and several other relatives arrived to collect his body that same day.
"We entered the intensive care zone. There was nobody there apart from doctors. In the room lay my father-in-law's corpse wrapped in a blanket and a plastic covering. The three of us lifted the body, carried it through the hospital courtyard, and loaded it into a car. We were not given any recommendations for how to conduct the funeral," recalls Magomed.
They cut off the plastic covering, removed the blanket, and we washed my father-in-law's body
The body was taken by car to a special place where COVID-19 victims' bodies are washed according to Islamic traditions. There are two rooms: one for men and another for women. The facility was opened with the support of the Mufti of Dagestan. The ablutions are performed free of charge.
"There was a man wearing a protective suit, wearing gloves and a respirator. He was not wearing protective goggles; he said they made it hard to see, so difficult to wash. They cut off the plastic covering, removed the blanket, and we washed my father-in-law's body. I helped one of the employees; they gave me a mask and gloves to wear. When the ablutions were complete, they wrapped the body in a shroud, as mandated. Then we wrapped him in a blanket and drove home. We removed the blanket just before the funeral," Magomed explains.
In Dagestan, these ablutions are seen as an absolute necessity before a funeral. Autopsies and particularly cremations are regarded as unacceptable. "[Bodies] are always washed here; it's an important act, even now. But there are different Mufti's administrations, and not all of them can command the same authority. Yeah, sometimes their instructions are a little dumb, but cremation? Really? What is this, some kind of Indian cult? I'm not sure if anybody has been cremated in the entire history of Islam. Just to suggest it sounds like heresy. I only know one case of an autopsy here. Autopsies aren't seen positively here, to put it mildly," explains Magomed.
The body is usually taken immediately to the cemetery. But the body of Magomed's father-in-law was first taken home; the family waited for the son to fly down from Moscow to say goodbye to his father. The body was not brought into the house – the corpse lay in the courtyard. Close relatives turned up to bid farewell to the deceased and offer condolences.
"Close relatives gathered there: my wife, her brother, my own parents, my widowed mother-in-law. We tried to keep our distance, as we knew that he had been ill at home, where his wife and son fell sick too. But they only caught it mildly. We understand that they're contagious, but there's no way we couldn't have been there for them in these circumstances. We can't just leave them alone. I told his son that he should wear a mask, but I didn't even attempt to speak to his widow. She wasn't in the right frame of mind to be told anything," remembers Magomed.
The next day, the daughter of the deceased arrived from the Oryol Region of central Russia. Magomed and other close relatives drove the father-in-law's up to his family's ancestral village in the mountains for burial. There were several police checkpoints along the way, which they passed without incident. "Now everywhere's teeming with police, but if you explain that you're on your way to bury a loved one, they'll let you through. What talk of permits or passes can there be? You'd just get an earful from a grieving person on his way to a funeral. Police in these parts, Dagestani police, do operate according to our local norms."
Restrictions on movement between Dagestan's towns and regions has since been strengthened. Several respondents confirmed that police regularly stop drivers and "can turn them back." However, they also confirmed that a funeral remains a special situation; cars carrying a dead body and grieving relatives can still pass without problems.
Magomed recalls that the funeral was poorly attended. About 12 people showed up: "siblings and nephews; the inner circle." It was rainy that day, he adds, and his feet got soaked. Two days after the funeral, Magomed and his wife caught a fever.
"It's clear to us that we've caught the coronavirus; there's no doubt about it. We want to get a CT scan. We've already been to the hospital but were told that our symptoms aren't severe, so we don't need to be admitted. After all, why put ourselves in the hotspot of the infection?" Magomed asks.
Magomed understands perfectly well that any contact with the body of a COVID-19 victim is dangerous. However, he says that Dagestanis simply have no other choice. Large-scale tezets, he says, are no longer being held today. His relatives, for example, did not leave the courtyard gate open for visitors, as it is customary to do. Only a handful of people came to express their condolences. "My father-in-law had four brothers and three sisters. They're all married. One of his brothers turned up; he'd been sick before. A sister also arrived with her husband. Her husband is now sick, but he's isolated himself and is not letting anybody near him, because he's diligent and responsible," says Magomed.
"I've no great wish to be on the front lines, but I didn't want to leave the ablutions to his children. Washing the dead isn't a pleasant thing to do. At first, I was even reluctant to let my wife come to the burial, but she threatened to go and stay with her mother unless I allowed her to. Her sister, who arrived from [central] Russia, said the same thing. You see, here in Dagestan, it's just unimaginable to not attend a funeral. I couldn't consider it myself. In a village, if somebody has an operation, traditionally half his family will sit on the street outside the hospital; sometimes there'll be 50 of them."
"And in these cases, people have died. To be absent at their funerals is just unacceptable."
A postscript on mortality
I worked on this article for several weeks. Over that time, the situation in several regions of the North Caucasus has deteriorated. According to official statistics, between May 21-22 in Dagestan alone, 24 people have died from COVID-19. By May 28, 151 had died. Several of my respondents and others who assisted me in gathering information have since fallen sick. A close acquaintance of mine is now at home in Grozny on an IV drip. Dagestanis have succeeded in drawing the attention of President Vladimir Putin to their dire situation; paramedics and doctors from other regions have arrived to assist.
The situation is worse in Chechnya. When a group of local doctors complained that their hospital was poorly equipped, they provoked the wrath of Chechen leader Ramzan Kadyrov. Although the doctors publicly apologised on television, Kadyrov demanded that "provocateurs" be fired. Furthermore, it recently became known that Kadyrov had been evacuated to Moscow for urgent medical treatment. Meanwhile, people across the region continue to die from severe pneumonia. This pneumonia has already claimed hundreds of lives; its victims are not included in the official figures for COVID-19 mortality cases.
Translated from the Russian by Maxim Edwards