Burial grounds needed for Covid-19 in Cook Islands

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RAROTONGA (Cook Islands News/Pacnews) — Politicians are debating whether land can be leased to bury expat workers who die in the Covid-19 shutdown — or whether the government should take land by warrant for burial plots.

The questions come after the death of resort worker Gerald Bertolano, 29, last week. It’s nigh-on impossible to send his body home to the Philippines while borders remain secured.

Bertolano died while awaiting med-evac; he had needed specialized care including a CT scan, which is not yet available in the Cook Islands.

A mass was held for Bertolano at the Saint Joseph’s Cathedral in Avarua, but his final funeral rites have not taken place.

Sending a body to the Philippines or Fiji costs up to $12,287.

Internal Affairs Minister Mac Mokoroa says that the Filipino community and other Pacific island communities should be doing some scope and ask for blocks of land owned by families here in Rarotonga.

This land could be leased for their community members, in case they suddenly pass away in Cook Islands.

But lawyer Tina Browne, the opposition leader, said unfortunately it was not that simple to lease land. “At times like this the best way forward in my view is for government to take land by warrant,” she said.

“The owners will have to be compensated but this is the quickest and easiest way. There is no time for meetings with owners,” she said.

Te Marae Ora should talk to Cook Islands Investment Corporation and see if matters could be moved that way.

Koutu Nui president Terea Mataiapo Paul Allsworth said the question had been raised in their meetings.

“As we are well aware, both church grave sites for the Cook Islands Christian Church and the Catholic are full or close to it. Cook Islands families use their own residences and land for their loved ones.”  

Allsworth said there was the opportunity to look at other possible cemetery sites as public burial grounds.

But this depended on a landowner providing land, and this could be gifted or paid for. “For foreigners who have passed away and cannot be transported back home, then the alternative measures need to be addressed. Our Cook Islands people are generous, compassionate and considerate in these circumstances.”

He said that an interesting trend overseas is the gradual use of cremation services by Cook Islanders families whose loved ones have passed away.

Allsworth said they were then returned home at a later date. This could be due to a specific family request or the high cost of freight and transportation back home.

Allsworth added that the Davey Locker Jones sea burial was foreign to Cook Islands culture and not supported by the Aronga Mana.

“Loved ones are either buried at home or in a cemetery plot. The Marae Ocean is our fishing ground and a valuable resource for our livelihood,” he said.

“Leased land is an option for a public cemetery and this subject needs further discussion with all parties including government.”

A month ago, when countries were closing their borders and Cook Islands begun its travel ban, the Fijian community came together in a meeting with government leaders, seeking answers to this.

The continuous ban meant the impossibility of sending a body home.

While there is still hope and there has been no confirmed case in the Cook Islands, Mokoroa had advised the Fijian Association that government was still holding discussions for family land or Crown land to be used for burial grounds.

But this was organized by Te Marae Ora, in case of a death caused by the Covid-19 virus.

While many may depend on the Panama Cemetery, Bishop Paul Donoghue had already said that he had been arguing since last year for more space to bury the dead.

He said that the cemetery was full and it was only for members of the Catholic Church from the Pa Enua and who passed away on Rarotonga.

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