The coronavirus pandemic changed the lives of millions in Turkey since the disease made its foray into the country in March 2020. Though health care workers experienced the impact first and foremost, other occupations also had their fair share of fear and dread.
Eda Elal has prepared corpses for burial in accordance with Islamic rituals nearly half her life but says her job as a "gassal" in Turkey has never been harder than when bodies and illness overwhelmed her during the COVID-19 pandemic. Elal, 36, said a sense of spiritual duty helped her continue carrying out the common end-of-life ritual despite exhaustion and fear, especially when she herself fell ill with COVID-19 last year. According to the ritual, gassals pray while washing the body, before placing it in a white shroud ahead of burial. Corpses arrive from hospitals or homes to a washing cabin, called a "gasilhane," where men wash male bodies and women wash female bodies.
"I have been a gassal for 16 years. I have never seen so many dead together. I have never washed so many corpses in one day. We were exhausted," Elal said. "Believe me, getting COVID-19 was more difficult than washing someone who died of COVID-19. Because you are sick yourself, you are waging a battle of life and death," she said, adding she received therapy for some time because she couldn't go outside fearing she would be reinfected.
Istanbul, Turkey's largest city of some 16 million, has 243 gassals working in 16 washing cabins that are managed and funded by the municipal council, providing the service for free. Elal said two gassals normally wash five bodies each day, though it was as many as 40 during the worst days of the pandemic. Turkey's daily COVID-19 deaths peaked near 400 in May last year and now hover just below 200 even as cases are at record highs.
Ceyhan Tunç, 45, another gassal, said they were panicked when the pandemic began and debated how to continue their work while staying safe but continued once new protective measures were adopted. "This is a matter of heart," said Tunç, who has worked for five years.
The gassals are paid by the municipal authority, but Elal and Tunç said the demanding work is more a responsibility than a source of income. "We try to look at this not from a perspective of money and a job but rather as a religious duty," Elal said and added that her father and husband did not at first support her decision, at age 17, to become a gassal. But now her family is her biggest moral support.
"I never had regrets about doing this work because preparing the corpse is the last service to a person. My faith and spirit are satisfied," Elal said and added that being with someone in "their final moment" made up for the difficulties.