CORONAVIRUS

Muslims Struggle To Honor Funeral Rituals During The Coronavirus Crisis

Muslims are being forced to mourn alone as the pandemic upends the tradition of community funerals.

The last time Shafat Uddin saw his father was when the ambulance picked him up from their Queens home in late March. Shafat, his parents, and his sister had all displayed COVID-19 symptoms in the days prior. They recovered, but AKM Monir Uddin, 63, only got worse. So Shafat called an ambulance.

He rode with his father to the hospital, but they were forced to separate at the door. There was so much he wanted to tell his dad. He wanted to tell him that he loved him and not to worry ― that he would look after their family. 

But Shafat never got the chance. 

On Saturday, March 21, his father was admitted to Mount Sinai, where he was confirmed to have contracted the coronavirus. By Monday, his condition rapidly deteriorated and medical workers put him on a ventilator. On Friday morning, he took his last breath. 

But there was little time to mourn. Islamic tradition, like Jewish tradition, dictates that a body should be washed, wrapped, prayed upon and buried within 24 hours. In the Islamic faith, the act of attending a fellow Muslim’s funeral service is a profoundly regarded practice rooted in solidarity. 

However, Muslim communities are struggling to honor these rituals amid the coronavirus pandemic and social distancing rules. As New York City grapples with the rising death toll, Islamic funerals — commonly referred to as janazah, which include washing the body and open-invite prayer services ― have been uprooted. Muslim burial service providers are overwhelmed, conducting services 15 times a week on average in recent weeks. The cost of those services has only skyrocketed. 

Shafat Uddin and his father, AKM Monir Uddin. Shafat couldn't attend his father's funeral after the 63-year-old died of the c
Shafat Uddin and his father, AKM Monir Uddin. Shafat couldn't attend his father's funeral after the 63-year-old died of the coronavirus.

Shafat was unable to attend his father’s services. Instead, over FaceTime, he watched as three members of a local Muslim funeral service, all dressed in masks and protective clothing, washed, shrouded and buried his father at a Muslim cemetery in New Jersey.

“If this was any other scenario, our house would be flooded with people or the hospital would be flooded with people, but in this scenario, he was just alone the whole time and we’re on this phone. Nobody was with us physically,” Shafat told HuffPost. 

The experience was difficult, to say the least, Shafat said. His father was well-respected by their local community and at their local mosque ― which he visited every day. Shafat said his father always made a point to attend other Islamic funerals, even if he did not know the deceased personally. 

It pained Shafat that no one was able to attend his father’s own services. 

“Nobody was able to attend his at all. It was just three people that we don’t even know,” said Shafat.

Upended Rituals

The rise of COVID deaths in the Muslim community brought on a slew of challenges for conducting Islamic funerals and burials. NooruDean Rabah, the vice president of the Muslim Funeral Services of New York, a 24-hour, Brooklyn-based funeral home, said his organization was operating at full capacity. 

On average, the funeral home conducted seven funerals a week, or 364 funerals a year. Last month, it buried nearly 400 Muslims. In order to cope with the volume, Rabah purchased two refrigerated trailers for $20,000 each to store the incoming bodies. 

Prior to COVID-19, the funeral home charged approximately $2,000 to pick up the deceased, bring them to the facility, wash their body, wrap them in a shroud and put them into a casket before transporting them to the mosque for the prayer services and then eventually to the cemetery for burial. 

“Death is a regular occurrence and is one of the most regular recurring things in our lives. It should be a simple process and we should be working together to make this a simple process,” said Rabah.

“We’ve entered a new day and era where we have more deceased bodies to pray over than the actual individuals offe
“We’ve entered a new day and era where we have more deceased bodies to pray over than the actual individuals offering the funeral prayers,” said NooruDean Rabah, the vice president of the Muslim Funeral Services of New York.

After COVID-19 arrived, many of these traditional practices were forced to change. It now costs an extra $175 for a biodegradable seal for coronavirus cases, and Islamic scholars and imams have granted exceptions and alternatives for the washing rituals. For those who cannot afford the services, Muslim Funeral Services of New York slashes its prices in half and fundraises the rest on behalf of the family. All funeral prayers at mosques have since been suspended.

These changes mean families like Shafat’s can no longer find solace in a communal service meant to comfort the loved ones of the deceased. Oftentimes, these prayers are now offered by the funeral workers themselves. 

“We’ve entered a new day and era where we have more deceased bodies to pray over than the actual individuals offering the funeral prayers,” said Rabah.  

Mourning During Ramadan

The same week Shafat’s father died, 59-year-old Ibrahim Mohamed was struggling for his life. The Brooklyn father already had a number of underlying health conditions, including kidney failure and a heart condition that meant he needed several cardiac stents.

On March 19, Mohamed tested positive COVID-19. His symptoms worsened and soon he was admitted to the local hospital. His wife called him every day because the family could not visit him in person. On the morning of March 23, Mohamed did not pick up her calls. He had died.   

“Alhamdulillah for everything, that’s what my dad tried to teach me,” said 28-year-old Rami Mohamed, using the Arabic phrase to thank and praise God often, no matter the circumstance.  

“When I look at myself and the type of person that I am, I realize I carry a few of his characteristic traits. I carry my dad within me, and I get to use those traits to do good with it and do what he intended me to do with it.”

Rami Mohamed, 28, pictured with his parents and sisters.
Rami Mohamed, 28, pictured with his parents and sisters.

Mohamed’s funeral was small, with just a handful of immediate family members present to adhere to social distancing rules. The family also livestreamed the services for the majority of their relatives, who were all in Egypt. Nearly 500 people tuned in.

“Even though they were not physically present, it was actually very soothing,” said Rami. “That gave me comfort knowing that my dad’s reach was that far.”

Rami said the mourning process has been difficult under lockdown and that each family member has grieved differently. He worries for his mother, whom he said has been hit the hardest by their loss. 

“People don’t realize that for people who lost a loved one, within the household [it] is a lot more difficult because you’re literally stuck and now dealing with this with limited or no social interaction.”

For Rami, he hopes he is capable of filling a void his father left. He falls back on his Muslim faith to help him get through the more challenging days and seek out solace and wisdom. He knows that’s what his father would have wanted.

“My dad, you know, spent his whole life getting ready for a situation like this, whether it was my own family or my mom, so at the end of the day, I’m gonna show him that he did well.”

With Ramadan in full swing, Shafat and his family back in Queens can’t help but feel their father’s absence. He thinks about the things he wanted to tell his dad. He wanted to assure him and that he promised to look after their family. That one day, “inshallah, God-willing, we will meet in Heaven.”


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