Caring for the dead: Christian, Muslim, and COVID

Iraqi paramedic Sarmad Ibrahim used to treat fellow militiamen in the war against the Islamic State. Now, he buries COVID-19 victims.

While this enemy is very different, the work is both physically and emotionally draining.

The team work at a new cemetery in the southern Shi’ite holy city of Najaf. It is Iraq’s only graveyard specifically for those who have died of COVID-19.

More than 200 people have died since the outbreak began in Iraq in February and the volunteers say they receive two to four corpses each day. It's an exhausting task where they must also get to grips with both Muslim and Christian burial rites.

Bodies often arrive at night. The volunteers, in full protective suits, wash and wrap the corpses in black burial shrouds before putting them back in the coffins. They then carry them to the graves under the headlights of their vehicles.

The team has struggled to expand beyond its dozen or so members. There is no evidence that COVID-19 can spread via corpses, but some medics say suspected exposure to the virus has alienated volunteers -- like Abu Sajad -- from their families and neighbors.

"My family doesn't know that I am working here. I know them well, they will be scared of or for me. People who know that I am working here are not directly avoiding me but I feel they are too shy to tell me - Abu Sajad, please don't come close to us."

Some tribes and local religious leaders have refused to bury victims of the virus in local cemeteries.

Abdul Hassan Kadhim, who leads the burial volunteer team, says bodies were being brought back to the morgue, stayed for up to 15 days, and ended up being buried without proper religious rites. This is one of the reasons the new graveyard was set up.

At this cemetery, the team must respect those rites. Relatives are allowed to watch from a distance, and a student from a local seminary leads prayers around each Muslim grave. Two Christians were also recently buried here.

Abu Sajad says he has been asking for advice on Christian burials and wants to carry them out properly. He says that while they may prefer to be buried separately, the graveyard welcomes people from all of Iraq's religious sects.

And through the tragedy of the coronavirus, they all now rest together.