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Unique Burial & Cremation Customs Series – Muslim Traditions

Muslims believe that life here on earth is temporary and that hell and paradise exist after life. They believe that on Judgment Day, the dead will be resurrected and Allah will judge whether a person will be sent to paradise or to hell.

The burial tradition for Muslims begins much like other religions, with cleansing the corpse. This is done as soon after death as possible, usually within hours of passing. In most cases, a family member of the same gender washes the body three or more times in jujube leaves. The washing must be done in odd numbers, with perfume being used in the final wash. Traditionally, a cloth is placed on top of the body while the washing is being done, covering private organs at all times. A “kafan” or a simple white cloth is used to wrap the body, after it is washed. Once the body is wrapped, family members and all other loved ones will pass their respect and condolences to the deceased. Prayers from the Muslim community are collected to form Salat al-Janazah, also known as Janazah prayer. These are usually prayers asking Allah to forgive the sins of the dead.

Cremation is not acceptable for Muslims, because they believe that Allah forbids the use of fire on his creations. The human body must be respected during the time of living and through death, which makes the procedures of cremation against the Muslim beliefs and principles. Based on this belief, burial is the only form of handling the deceased. But unlike most US traditions, Muslims do not use a casket in the burying process. Instead, the body is placed directly in the grave with the body on its right side, facing Qibla.

The burial ceremony involves the reciting of a verse that basically means that we are all created from soil, thus we will return to soil. Every person at the gravesite pours three handfuls of soil over the grave. During this process, even more prayers for the forgiveness of the dead are said.

After the burial ceremony, the body is buried with the help of gravediggers, with one final prayer being recited.

In the past, unnecessary displays were discouraged for Muslim graves, because they wanted the whole burial ceremony to be as simple and as modest as possible. It was common to have only simple marks on the grave and tombstones no higher than 12 inches from the ground. Today, the tradition is not as common. Grave monuments are becoming more popular choices amongst Muslims.

Although mourning is acceptable in Islam, weeping loudly, shrieking, or losing control of emotions is discouraged. The mourning process for family and loved ones is three days, but is much longer for wives who lost their husbands. Their mourning period is referred to as the period of waiting, or “iddah”, and lasts for four months and ten days. During this period, the widow is not allowed to have any interaction with any man, nor is she also allowed to remarry to ensure that the widow has no possibility of carrying her late husband’s child before marrying again.

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This is the third in a series of blog posts on unique burial and cremation customs throughout the world. To read the first entry on customs of Tibet, visit http://phaneuf.net/blog/unique-burial-series-tibet-sky-burials, or for the second entry on customs of Greece, visit http://phaneuf.net/blog/unique-burial-and-cremation-customs-traditions-of-greece. In the coming weeks, I will be blogging about the traditions of many countries and detailing their burial and cremation customs. Although at first glance, some of the traditions sound a bit harsh and very different from the customs of the U.S., they typically follow the belief system of that culture and are done with good reason and intentions.

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