A 48-year-old funeral worker sealed a body in a leakproof bag after wrapping it with a plastic bag. Cleaning and preservation treatments were skipped. The sealed corpse was immediately sent to a cremation facility and turned to ash in just a few hours. Looking at the flames in the distance, the bereaved families remained lethargic.
The whole process, rushed and hushed, only seemed to amplify the sudden tragedy that hit the family, to whom Middle East respiratory syndrome was something of a faraway land until less than a month ago.
Under the government orders for fear of further infection, the corpses of MERS victims are mandated to be cremated within 24 hours of death. No funeral ceremonies are allowed.
"It's so sad that the families cannot say goodbye to them. Bereaved families cannot even check the faces of their beloved before the cremation, because of virus concerns," funeral worker Lee Sang-jae told The Korea Herald. He managed the cremation process of five MERS victims this week in Seoul.
As of Wednesday afternoon, the contagious virus outbreak had claimed 20 deaths in the country since late last month.
"The dead can be cremated only in the late afternoon after the other uninfected bodies are done first. Until then, the bereaved families can do nothing but wait," he added.
Only a limited number of bereaved family members are allowed to go to the designated cremation facilities, wearing mandated protective clothing. Some family members who are infected or in quarantine cannot even visit.
Most painfully, the patient is usually not able to share the last moment with the loved ones. While the government says that the families can spend the moment with the patients upon discussion, it is usually technically difficult as family members tend to be placed in quarantine, thereby not allowed to go out.
This often leads to a sense of guilt for the remaining family members, as many feel as if they did not fulfil their duties, experts said.
"The Korean culture of the three-day funeral service actually helps the bereaved families express and release their sorrow and be comforted by others. But since the MERS victims' families are asked to finish everything in 24 hours, they are likely to be under much more stress," said psychiatrist Hwang Jae-uk at Soonchunhyang University Hospital.
Worsening their mental stress is the prejudice of others, Hwang noted.
"They become stigmatised as many people try to shun them over worries that they might expose the virus. Knowing that, the bereaved families will also attempt to conceal the MERS history and refrain from expressing their emotions or stress," Hwang added.
As part of the efforts to relieve the mental stress of the bereaved families, the government Tuesday pledged to provide psychological support.
The MERS response headquarters said that the five public hospitals and a few municipal health centres will offer counseling.
Experts, however, stress that the most basic, yet best solution can be made by the public.
"The attitude in which the public attempts to avoid them over virus concerns can leave them in social isolation. Offering thoughtful words and care can make a big difference to them," said psychologist Kwak Keum-joo at Seoul National University.