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Muslims Reconcile Burial Rites, State Rules

By ANN MARIE SOMMA, Courant Staff Writer

February 18, 2008

Muslims bury their dead quickly within 24 hours. The dead must be interred without a casket, facing the holy city of Mecca.

Before the burial, the body is washed with soap and scented water, then wrapped in a seamless cloth, tied at the head and feet. Cremation and embalming are forbidden.

But the specific burial rites meant to prepare Muslims for the afterlife are in conflict with public health codes and public cemetery regulations, forcing Muslims in the state to compromise the rituals outlined in the Quran.

Some mosques are calling for members to enter the funeral industry, while others find creative alternatives that keep with Islamic law.

"We must respect the law of the land in which we live that's the essence of Islam," said Muhammed Ali, the president of the Daar-ul-Ehsaan mosque in Bristol.

But Ali believes Muslims can adhere to health regulations and remain faithful to Islamic burial traditions. They just need to ask for a loose interpretation of the law.

When members of the Daar-ul-Ehsaan mosque opened a cemetery last year behind the mosque, they were told by state health officials that the dead must be buried in concrete vaults because of the mosque's proximity to a residential neighborhood. Most public cemeteries won't bury a body without a vault or a burial liner, and state law requires the dead be interred in caskets or containers if a cemetery lies within 350 feet of a residential dwelling.

Ali's concern was that the heavy equipment needed to move the concrete vaults in the cemetery would disturb existing grave sites.

So, Ali searched the Internet for an alternative and found lightweight plastic vaults made from the same composite materials as the Boeing 787 that passed public health codes and can be easily moved.

"We looked behind the spirit of the law and found a compromise," Ali said.

Naveed Khan, a member of the United Muslim Masjid of Waterbury, said many Muslims find the compromises difficult. He sees a need for more Muslim cemeteries and more Muslims entering the funeral business as the state's Muslim population grows and ages. He wants mosques to be able to perform the ritual washing and shrouding symbolic of wrapping the dead in Allah's mercy without the need of a traditional funeral home.

"Most of the mosques are not equipped for the washing. We have to go to the local funeral home because the funeral home has custody of the body," Khan said.

Muslims must pay a funeral home to rent a room where families gather to wash the deceased. In Muslim countries, the ritual washing is done at the graveside or in a mosque.

The Waterbury mosque is currently building a larger mosque that will include a cemetery and a room set aside specifically for the ritual washing, Khan said.

Until recently, the Muslim cemetery in Enfield was the only cemetery that permitted interment in simple wooden boxes burials that are closest to the Islam faith to allow the deceased to hear the muezzin's call.

That changed in December when Enfield residents complained to state health officials that cemetery burials were encroaching on land next to their neighborhood. The cemetery must now bury the dead in the sealed vaults.

"[Muslims] are shocked that this is a requirement now. But these are regulations we have to follow," said Muhammed Haidara, an imam at the Islamic Center in Windsor, which runs the cemetery. "It is not our choice."

James E. Jones, with the Masjid Al-Islam in New Haven, said Muslim burials are simple similar to "green" burials that don't use embalming and coffins. A wake is never held because prayers for the forgiveness of the dead are said at the grave site.

Despite the simplicity, Muslim burials average more than $2,000. Funeral homes charge on average about $900 to transport a body to the funeral home and to the grave site.

Only a licensed funeral director or embalmer can transport a corpse, according to state law.

"Islam requires that you do as much as you can with the boundaries of the law," Jones said.

Ali said when the Bristol mosque buries its first Muslim in the cemetery, soil will be spread on the bottom of the plastic vault so the body is in touch with the earth in accordance with Islamic law.

"Islam is flexible," Ali said. "Hopefully as time goes by, things will change, but in the meantime we have to respect the laws of the land."

Reprinted with permission of the Hartford Courant. To view other stories on this topic, search the Hartford Courant Archives at http://www.courant.com/archives.
| Last update: September 25, 2012 |
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