In UK, hard-hit minority communities struggle to bury the dead

A victim of the coronavirus is brought into the temporary morgue at the Central Jamia Mosque Ghamkol Sharif in Birmingham, England. Andrew Testa for The New York Times
Normally, the mosque, one of England’s largest, would be filled with thousands of worshippers during the holy month of Ramadan, but now it is mostly empty, except for stacks of coffins.

Every few hours a van pulls up in front of the white marquee of the Central Jamia Mosque Ghamkol Sharif, its entrance emblazoned with the Quranic verse: “Verily we belong to God, and verily to him do we return.”

Volunteers dressed in protective coveralls and masks come out and carefully unload black-velvet-covered coffins and carry them inside a makeshift mortuary in the mosque’s parking lot. There the bodies are washed, shrouded and refrigerated.

Before the coronavirus outbreak, the funeral service at the mosque in the hard-hit city of Birmingham, Britain’s second largest, would receive one or two bodies a week. But last month — as Britain hit its peak infection numbers — five to six bodies were brought in each day, forcing the mosque to build a makeshift mortuary in its parking lot, which it has opened to all faiths.

“I’ve lost count of the bodies that have come in and out of here,” said Javid Akhtar, the mosque’s funeral director, hastily pulling his mask away from his mouth to catch his breath. “I’ve never seen anything like this.”

The virus has claimed more than 31,800 lives in Britain as of Saturday, and while London has been the epicentre of cases and deaths, Birmingham and surrounding areas in the West Midlands have emerged lately as a virus hot spot. In April, the University Hospitals Birmingham NHS Trust, a public hospital network in the Midlands region, recorded more deaths than any other NHS trust in England.

Communities from black and religious minority backgrounds, which make up around 26% of Birmingham’s 842,000 residents, have been disproportionally affected by the virus, prompting a government investigation into the cause. A study by NHS England found that 16% of coronavirus victims who died up to the week of April 17 came from ethnic minority backgrounds.

Out of more than 100 health workers who have died from the virus, 63% have been identified as from those backgrounds.

“We have seen, both across the population as a whole but in those who work in the NHS a much higher proportion who’ve died from minority backgrounds, and that really worries me,” Britain’s health secretary, Matt Hancock, said during a news briefing last month.

Several committee members at the Ghamkol Sharif mosque, who helped set up the mortuary in Birmingham’s Small Heath district, have fallen ill with coronavirus symptoms, leaving a group of young volunteers to run the operation.

“Everyone in the community knows someone who has died or is sick,” said Tariq Mahmood, a 24-year-old brand specialist, who is volunteering at the mosque and handled his first body last week — a middle-aged man who died in prison.

The mortuary is divided into four sections. In the entrance, dozens of empty wooden coffins lie neatly stacked against one another, awaiting the bodies of the newly announced dead.

To the left, large industrial refrigerators with a storage capacity of up to 400 bodies are lined up back to back, facing a large tarp curtain that covers the mortuary washing table.

On a recent rainy day, Akhtar, the funeral director, and a volunteer tried to put one of the corpses on the table to be washed, but the basin and floor were flooded and there was no time to dry it because another body needed to be collected.

“This is a slower week, but even now it’s hard to keep up,” Akhtar said. “These days it can take one or two hours to pick up a body because there are so many people dying and all the paperwork takes time.”

On the far side of the mortuary, six green plastic chairs and two prayer mats were laid out for the small-scale funeral services that are performed daily for the families of the deceased.

Under Islamic funeral rites, burials must take place as swiftly as possible, usually within 24 hours of a death. But as bodies have piled up in recent weeks, many Muslim funerals have been delayed, sometimes up to seven days.

“The families are suffering the most; they have no one around them while they grieve,” Mohammed Zahid, a committee member at the mosque, said after returning from the burial of a 37-year-old man who died within days of testing positive for the virus despite his youth and lack of underlying health conditions.

“Only six people were allowed at the funeral. What do you do if you have five brothers and two sisters?” he asked. “Who do you take and who do you leave at home?”

Zahid lost two aunts to the virus in April and could not attend their funerals because of capacity restrictions. When asked how he had grieved, he said, “I didn’t. How can I when we have five to six bodies coming in here every day? There is no time.”

One of the biggest challenges for Muslim leaders in Birmingham has been getting the community to abide by the government lockdown restrictions, especially in late March, when they were first announced.

Barkha Ayoub, a 21-year-old engineering student from Birmingham’s Washwood Heath district, said she saw several religious gatherings during the first few weeks of lockdown.

“It’s quieter now, as it’s Ramadan and people are starting to see how dangerous the virus is, but some older people and big families are still meeting every day to break their fast together,” Ayoub said in a phone interview.

On a recent day, she took a long walk past her local mosque and saw two coffins being loaded into a van while a family stood at a distance and wept through their masks. A day later, she saw another coffin being offloaded from a van.

“So many people are dying right in front of our eyes, it’s terrifying,” she said. “All I wanted to do was walk up to the family, hug the mother, hold her. Tell her everything would be OK. But all I could do was stand there and watch. It felt very unnatural.”

c.2020 The New York Times Company