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Coronavirus And Death: The Changing Roles of Iran's Clerics And Military Men

Iran - Clerics visiting coronavirus patients in Tehran. Undated
Iran - Clerics visiting coronavirus patients in Tehran. Undated

The coronavirus outbreak has changed many things in Iran, including the way people live and die.

The outbreak has also changed the roles people play in society. Two groups in particular are experiencing the most dramatic changes in their roles: The clergy and the military.

In the meantime, some of the members of the two groups have been working hard to regain lost popular support amid the coronavirus outbreak in Iran. Before the outbreak, many people were angry at the main support groups of the Islamic Republic. At the beginning of the outbreak, not quarantining the religious city of Qom, added to the anger.

According to the official news agency IRNA, groups of clerics have been working at the cemetery in Mashhad to perform religious ceremonies for the COVID-19 victims.

The report says that due to concerns about hygiene, preparing bodies for burial is no longer possible in the usual way that involves washing the body and make up with powdered leaves of jujube tree and using camphor as fragrance and disinfectant before covering the body in a shroud.

Instead, based on religious rules endorsed by Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei in a decree, the clerics administer "dry ablution" before covering the body in shroud over whatever the dead person was wearing before his death and finishing the job with layers of thick plastic that is twisted and fixed on both ends. Then the whole thing is put in a body bag that goes into a sealed coffin.

All this is done with great respect for the dead as it is customary in the Iranian version of Shiite Islam. Onlookers alien to the local culture might think that the man or woman is leaving this world as a saint, clean and innocent.

Family members are allowed to watch the burial only from a safe distance although people have gone out of their way to get closer to the body to say the final goodbye to their loved ones. Nevertheless, in certain cases, for instance when the victim is a well-connected person, the whole ceremony is done in the usual old way regardless of the risks involved.

The routine prayer for the dead has been observed to be performed from a safe distance. Although some family members claim that the people in charge of the burial have skipped this key part particularly when too many dead bodies had to be buried in a hurry in the dark to avoid gatherings that might endanger other people's lives.

It has been said that after cleansing and dry ablution, the clerics' role ends and the role of the Basij militia starts. Some people avoid any contact with those who died of COVID-19. So, in most cases, cemetery staff members or the Basij volunteers are the ones who carry the coffins to the grave.

Burial of Covid-19 victims in Iran shows just a handful of family members standing afar and the grave being disinfected. April 3, 2020
Burial of Covid-19 victims in Iran shows just a handful of family members standing afar and the grave being disinfected. April 3, 2020

There is also a change in the way the dead are carried. In usual circumstances, like everywhere else in the world four or more people carry the coffin on their shoulders and people take turns to go under the coffin out of respect for the deceased or simply to allow others to rest.

COVID-19 dead bodies are still carried by four mem holding the four handles balancing the coffin, usually only a body bag with no box, at lower than waist level.

The body is then carried to a four-meter deep grave and sent into the grave with two sets of ropes. When the body rests on the ground, the four men pull the ropes out of the grave and burn it later with the deceased's latest belongings to make sure that no contaminated item remains after burial.

Before pouring the grave with soil and gravels, they pour a layer of quicklime and slaked lime over the body bag to prevent contamination of the soil. All this time loved ones are kept away from the grave although in some cases they try hard to reach the grave. But in most cases people are told about the death and the grave later, at least on the following day. Death is a sad event but dying and being buried in loneliness may look and sound even more so.

However, this is not all that clerics and military men do at the time of the outbreak. The IRGC-linked Tasnim news agency has listed dozens of reports about what the IRGC and its Basij volunteers have been doing to help the people during the outbreak. The forces possibly, and perhaps rightly, hope that this temporary change of roles might help restore their image after their participation in crackdown on protests in November 2019 and on several other occasions in recent past.

In the same way, some clerics have tried to do their best to help by going to hospitals to preach or even entertain COVID-19 patients. At times this did not quite work, for instance when a cleric administered his homegrown medicine to groups of patients at a hospital in Gilan province, unknowingly spreading the virus from on bed to another, or in another case, with medical staff in Tehran complaining that clerics make too much noise or try to talk to patients who are not in a good position to take part in any conversation.

Although it is difficult to gauge people's sentiment from afar, but there are showing some people have welcomed the military more than clerics, possibly because they are more disciplined and more efficient than clerics who might do harm even when they wish well.

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    Behrouz Turani

    Behrouz Turani is a British-Iranian writer and journalist as well as a consultant on Iran's political dynamics and the Iranian media landscape.