On a frigid Saturday afternoon when the winds were downright piercing, 11 men and women braved the cold to attend a seminar on how to wash and shroud a dead body the Islamic way.
“The prophet directed us to do this. It is an obligation for us. If the relatives can’t do it, the community has to do it,” said Imam Taqiuddin Ahmed, director of the Islamic Society of Central New York, to the volunteers. “If nobody does it, the whole community is sinful.”
Three women and eight men sat attentively, listening to Imam Taqiuddin Ahmed, who explained why washing and shrouding was a community affair in Islam and more so in a country like the United States where most of the Muslim population consists of converts and first-generation immigrants, who do not know how to conduct the burial rituals in the Sunnah way. The Sunnah is a religious literary source based on Prophet Mohamed’s way of life and his teachings on how to live in a manner befitting a follower of Islam.
Since mortuaries and cemeteries are not familiar with Muslim practices, it is left to such organizations to create awareness of their customs in non-Muslim communities in secular societies. Thus, burials are part of a mosque’s community service program here. These help out with arranging and attending the funerals and conducting essential rituals required by the religion that are unique to the minority community.
Dr. Sayyid Sayeed, secretary general of Islamic Society of North America said most mosques in the United States offered such services. There is a need for such services here and it is also an Islamic requirement, he said.
“The families are split here. Some of them are overseas. We are not in a traditional society where these are familiar,” he said. In the Middle East and other South Asian countries, these burials are essentially a family affair.
Also, it is easy on the family that has experienced a death, said Juan E. Campo, associate professor of religious studies, University of California, Santa Barbara.
“They might not want to do it themselves as they are aggrieved. It helps to have someone do it,” he said.
According to Dr. Mahmoud Mustafa Ayoub, professor of Islamic studies and comparative religion at Temple University, the prospect of reward also makes people volunteer to perform the rituals in the Muslim community, he said.
“Those who take part will get a reward. It is something very positive to be involved in a funeral process. We are not an individualistic community. If people do not have the community at such times, they are pitied,” he said referring to burials in Lebanon and other such countries.
Imam Taqiuddin Ahmed said Allah rewards those who come forward to render their services in such times.
“We do not know what the reward or sabab is. But there is something definitely,” he said.
Osameh Alwahaidy, who has been with the mosque since 1986 and volunteers to do washing and shrouding, said he does it because Allah will reward him. “Everyone tries to be righteous. We will get to jannat (heaven),” he said. The Islamic Society of Central New York, 925 Comstock Ave., has been helping the community with burials for 15 years.
There are five parts of an Islamic burial. The first part is physically cleansing the body, which is also part of Shari’ah. Around four volunteers are needed to do this. The next step is to shroud the body in kafan, plain white cloth, so that the private parts are not visible. The process is called takfeen. The third part consists in conducting the funeral prayer, which is led by the Imam. The next part is the burial itself. And lastly, the community members gather to pray for the forgiveness of the deceased. Muslims do not embalm the body. They wash it and then wrap it in clean white sheets called the kafan. Usually, three sheets are required to cover a man’s body and five are needed for a woman. The mosque keeps these sheets so that they are readily available.
The mosque keeps a list of volunteers to contact in case of a death, who then go to the funeral home to conduct the washing and shrouding rituals. Though six women had signed up for the seminar, only three were present. But more women joined them later. This was the first time the mosque was holding a seminar to train and educate volunteers about the funeral rituals. Earlier, volunteers would train others who wished to offer their services.
While Ahmed demonstrated the procedure, the others took notes. The volunteers have to be gentle and modest and handle the body with respect and keep it covered at all times, Ahmed said.
“It is needed here because we have so many converts, whose families do not know what procedure to follow in case of death,” said Ahmed.
However, the very fact that a large part of the Muslim population here is composed of converts brings many issues in its wake. Alwahaidy said sometimes the family that has not accepted Islam may have objections with the type of burial.
“Around 15 years ago we had a case. The son wanted the mother’s body to be cremated instead of an Islamic burial. The mother was a convert. We could not do anything,” he said.
Now the mosque has an Islamic will that converts can sign. The Islamic burial is part of the will, said Mir Hussainni, secretary of the Islamic Society. However, the will is not mandatory.
Danya Wellman, who converted to Islam 14 years ago, said that in Muslim countries the ritual was performed culturally, while here it is done Islamically. Only Muslims can wash and shroud a Muslim’s body and that’s why volunteers were needed. She said the thought that no stranger will handle her body when she died was good.
“I know my Muslim sisters will treat my body with respect. My own daughter will not do it. She won’t be able to,” she said.
Wellman volunteers to do washing and shrouding and has trained several other women. Women can only wash women’s bodies except in the case of the spouse. The family can participate but the rituals must be performed with great care as this is something that Allah has asked us to do and we can’t be wrong, she said.
“We wash and shroud the same way the Jews do it,” she said explaining the procedure.
Since the law here is different from that in South Asia or the Middle East, where the family takes care of the procedures, local mosques also assume the role of a facilitator.
The dead body in the United States is collected by the funeral homes and they contact the local mosque, which then sends volunteers to perform the washing and shrouding of the body. The body is then brought to the mosque where the janazah or the funeral prayer is said by the Imam and it is then taken to the cemetery to be buried. The mosques often have their own cemeteries or have a separate space marked for the Muslims in a cemetery. The body is put in a casket and lowered in the grave. Islam does not allow caskets but the law in New York and most states here requires the use of a casket for safety purposes. This also makes it expensive. A casket costs between $700 and $20,000 depending upon the quality and decoration.
“We have been directed by scholars and the prophet to follow the law of the country that we reside in. So, we use the caskets, though it is not right,” Ahmed said. “Many states with large Muslim population have successfully asked the state government to let them bury the body without a casket or coffin, but in New York we are not allowed.”
“The Muslim community here has decided to submit to the civil laws and the safety and sanitary laws,” said Campo, associate professor of religious studies.
States such as California do not require caskets, said Dr. Ayoub. However, in states where it is required by law, the caskets should be the most unassuming and the cheapest available because Islam prohibits any ostentation, he said.
A typical burial may cost anything between $2,000 to 3,000. The Islamic Society has already bought land in the local cemetery and people pay around $600 to the mosque for the grave, which goes to the graveyard fund. The mosque is planning on buying another plot as the one at Comstock Avenue does not have much space left, said Ahmed. It helps people who can’t afford to pay for the burials.
“We helped some of the refugees from Bosnia and Somalia with the burial as also some Muslim families here who could not bear the expenses,” said Hussainni of the Islamic Society. The mosque also helps non-Muslims if they approach them for burials.
Fudil Selmoune, the assistant Imam of the Islamic Society said it was a costly affair to bury people here. “The cost it too much compared to our country where there are no expenses for digging. It is almost free. We just have to buy the cloth, which does not cost more than a dollar or two in my country” said Selmoune, who is from Algeria and joined the mosque in 2003. That makes the mosque’s role more important.
Various mosques in United States have licenses to bury the dead. So, the burying can take place the same day as preferred by Muslims. But in smaller cities, where the mosques have arrangements with the funeral homes, it may take days to bury the body.
Alwahaidy said it was particularly difficult if a person died on Friday and they had to wait till Monday when the funeral homes opened in order to bury the body.
“Sometimes, we have to wait for the death certificate. That delays the process. We have arrangements with the funeral homes that call the mosque when someone dies but sometimes things get delayed,” he said. “In Jordan things are simple. We don’t have to go to the hospitals. There are no funeral homes.”