Funeral arrangements a concern for Muslims in America
Washington - At a recent funeral for a Muslim-American man in Florida, the bereaved family encountered chaos and confusion as they struggled to adhere to Islamic burial traditions.
First, the coroner’s office did not release the body expeditiously so that it could be buried within 24 hours of death as per tradition. Then, the cemetery informed the family that it did not accept burial without a coffin, the preferred custom for an Islamic burial. Even the relatively simple choreography of transporting the body in and out of the mosque for interment was riddled with conflict.
These issues would normally be addressed by a professional funeral director but in the United States only a handful of funeral directors are trained in Islamic burial traditions. As a result, Islamic burials are largely relegated to mosque volunteers and informal relationships with local hospitals and cemeteries, a network so loose and arbitrary it often leads to confusion. This is especially a challenge for families who do not regularly attend a mosque and do not have extensive contacts within their religious community.
One Muslim funeral director in Virginia said she knew of only seven Muslim funeral homes in the United States. She said the lack of organised funerary options for Muslims inspired her to become a funeral director to help grieving families with a dignified funeral.
“The easiest way to avoid confusion is to establish a point of contact. Otherwise, I’m going to get second-hand information and I’ll have four brothers and three sisters and an aunt and an uncle all trying to make funeral arrangements according to what they think is right,” said Miriam AbdRahmaan of Janazah Funeral Home in Chantilly, Virginia.
“But there’s no place currently that qualifies to teach how to be a Muslim funeral director and unfortunately mosques [must] facilitate funerals through non-Muslim funeral homes,” she said.
AbdRahmaan said she had to lobby cemeteries to allow burial without a coffin. Now, the community she serves can bury loved ones in a large cement casing that has plenty of earth inside it to simulate the Islamic tradition of burial in the earth.
Dexter Jairam of Clermont Family Funeral in Florida said he believes his is the only Muslim funerary service in the state. He has received calls from as far away as Georgia to arrange for burial in one of two local all-Muslim cemeteries.
He said the shortage of Muslim funeral directors is because Muslims in the United States are scattered across the country with only a few concentrations, such as in New York and Philadelphia.
“There isn’t enough volume,” he explained. “You need at least 300 funerals per year to make a decent living. Last year, I had 60.” He supplements his income by offering funerary services to non-Muslims.
For one Muslim American in St Louis, Missouri, the need to serve the community became so great that he quit his job as an engineer and raised money to earn a degree as a funeral director. He now operates the only Muslim funeral home in the state.
“Before us, Muslims had to go to non-Muslim funeral homes, where services weren’t done in accordance with sharia and the bodies were often mishandled,” said Adil Imdad, chairman of the burial committee at the Islamic Foundation in St Louis and a county police chaplain. He has directed more than 110 Muslim funerals from 20 nationalities.
Because many of the deceased are immigrants, their families face another unwelcome surprise at the time of death.
“Back home funerals are free at the local mosque. The family washes their loved one and the imam does the janaza (funeral) and there’s a common cemetery and you’re done,” he said. In the United States, the cost of the most basic funeral is about $2,500, not counting the expense of the cemetery plot.
Imdad offers the service for free, with volunteers pitching in to perform duties such as the ritual washing of the body, digging the grave and maintaining the gravesite.
In many ways, the challenges facing Muslim Americans with regards to burials are similar to those that Jewish Americans once faced. The two faiths have similar burial rules and Jewish communities now have clear and established channels to go through at the time of bereavement.
“The Jewish funeral homes bring the body into our care as soon as possible,” said Mindy Botbol of Shalom Memorial Funeral Home in Illinois. “That was probably our biggest challenge over the years but it now has come into more accepted practice.”
Yet even for the established Jewish community in the United States, Botbol said the main value behind her work has not changed over time.
“Our main challenge is educating the community and family as they’re making funeral arrangements and working through this process,” she said.