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Muslims In The US Struggle To Hold Traditional Funeral Amid Coronavirus Fears

Since the coronavirus swept the United States in March, Muslim burial procedures in the country have become difficult. Funeral homes across the country are overwhelmed. Many have had to rely on refrigerated trucks to store the dead since social distancing measures and a significant increase in the number of deaths reduced the pace of burials.

It is especially difficult for Muslims, who do not practice embalming as Islam states the dead must be buried quickly. Moreover, in Islam, funeral prayers are considered a collective obligation (fard qifayah) and the call to participate is made to the entire community. A sufficient number of people must be present to conduct the prayers.

“The earth is waiting. Allah is asking for that person to be buried as soon as possible. You never want that grave to wait for you,” says Zafar Iqbal Imtiaz Ahmed, a Pakistani immigrant, who used to be a taxi driver before he started Al-Rayaan Muslim Funeral Services in Brooklyn three years ago. He chose the location of the business on Coney Island Avenue, Brooklyn, because of the mosque next door.

Since the outbreak of Covid-19 pandemic, staff members climb into a refrigerated truck throughout the day, and carefully carry dead bodies into the funeral home for their funeral prayers and then quickly transport the bodies to their final resting place. What used to be a sombre community gathering has been replaced by a frenzy. The limited number of people in attendance at the funeral are encouraged to quickly disperse following the prayers and goodbyes to the deceased.

“For the family it’s tough because they cannot mourn as they wish, and you can see the pain [on their faces],” Ahmed said.

Funeral homes and cemeteries are considered an essential service in the US. In a letter to funeral directors on April 10, the government urged them to avoid in-person gatherings. “If in-person services must be held, the gathering should be limited to only immediate family, with as few persons physically present as possible.” Like other religious groups in the United States, Muslims have adapted to meet government health recommendations to reduce contagion. 

To reduce trauma and confusion surrounding Muslim burials during the pandemic, the Fiqh Council of North America has encouraged funerals to be broadcast online, allowing those who are not able to attend in-person to participate in the Janazah prayers.

In the last few months Al-Rayaan, has buried over 200 people, including many who died from Coronavirus. Some of the bodies were collected and shipped back to the deceased’s country of birth, Pakistan.

“We used to have 20-30 funerals a month before Coronavirus, but now it’s about 15 times a day on average,” Ahmed said.

As the death toll from Coronavirus continues to rise, prominent U.S. Muslim scholars have issued guidance on how to deliver funeral rites for those who died from the Coronavirus. Citing concerns of contagion, they have disallowed washing the bodies with water.

The Fiqh council of North America, also issued a fatwa advising Muslims how to deal with Muslim burials during the time of Coronavirus. They advised Muslims to follow routine burial procedures; however, if they encountered challenges due to the U.S government restrictions they should allow for the use of alternative procedures.

Yasir Qadhi, a member of the council and Dean of Academic Affairs at Al-Maghrib Institute, Texas, said, “In case even this cannot be done and there is a genuine danger or reasonable doubt regarding harming the health of those around the corpse, tayammum can be done, in which case the one in charge of the corpse may, even while wearing gloves, wipe the face and hands of the deceased after touching some sandy surface.”

The Centres for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) advises that to prevent contagion, the body of someone who has died from the Coronavirus should not be touched.

The federal agency recommends that any cleaning and contact with the body should be done wearing the correct personal protective equipment (PPE).  Given the shortage of PPE in the US Muslims in some states have ceased to perform the ritual bath and instead adopted another Islamic method, tayammum, whereby the body is cleaned with either sand or dust.

Nasir Saleh who runs Alfirdaus Janazah Services, a Muslim funeral and burial service, in Lorton, Virginia confirmed that they have changed burial procedures “from washing the body to tayammum.”

Apart from the changes in burial procedures, the cost of funerals has also skyrocketed.

An Islamic funeral service in New York City used to cost around $2,000, including a plot of land for burial, before the pandemic but now some members of the Muslim community are reporting that they have been charged around $10,000.

“In Islam, the funeral rites are considered a communal obligation,” said Imam Khalid Latif, executive director of the Islamic Centre at New York University (NYU). He explained he helped to establish an online fundraiser that collected nearly $195,000 last month to support Muslim Funeral Services of New York, a Brooklyn-based group also known as the Janazah Project. “We have a responsibility to ensure that people who can’t afford an Islamic burial are still able to have it done,” he said.

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