What to Expect at a Muslim Funeral

-There are two major sects within Islam, namely Shi’a and Sunni. But for the most part, Muslims believe that the soul of the deceased remains with the tomb until the Day of Judgment, called the Last Day, when the world shall be destroyed. Those heading to Paradise, on account of their good deeds, will experience peace, while those heading to Hell, on account of their bad deeds, will experience suffering.

-When death is imminent, family members and close friends should be present, encouraging the moribund to say the “shahada,” affirming that there is no God but Allah.

-Immediately upon the occurrence of death, those present should say “Inna lillahi wa inna ilayhi raji’un” (“Verily we belong to Allah, and truly to Him shall we return”). Those present should then close the eyes and mouth of the deceased, cover the body with a clean sheet, then pray to Allah to forgive the sins of the deceased.

-According to “Shariah” (Islamic law), the body should be buried as soon as possible after death. All attempts are made to bury the dead within 24 hours after death. (Routine autopsies are not acceptable in Islam as they are regarded as desecration of the body. Organ donation, however, is permissible, at it complies with the Qur’an’s teaching that “Whosoever saves the life of one person, it would be as if he has saved the life of all of mankind.” Embalming and cosmetology are not allowed unless required by state and federal law. Exceptions are sometimes made for a Muslim who dies in a foreign land and wishes to be buried in his/her homeland. Cremation is forbidden for Muslims.

-A local Islamic organization typically assists the family with the funeral arrangements, which must begin immediately upon death in order to comply with the religious law of expeditious burials.

-In preparation for burial, the body must be washed (“ghusl”) and shrouded (“kafan”). Close family members of the same sex traditionally perform the ghusl, though in the case of spousal death, the spouse may perform the washing. The body must be washed at least three times. If additional washings are necessary to render the body completely clean, additional washings may be conducted, provided that the total number of washings is an odd number. (The body is washed as follows: upper right side; then upper left side; followed by lower right side; and then lower left side. Women’s hair should be washed and braided into three braids. Once clean, the body is covered with a white sheet).

-To shroud the body, three large white sheets of inexpensive fabric should be laid atop each other. The body is then placed atop the sheets. (In the case of a deceased female, the body is then dressed in a simple, ankle-length, sleeveless white dress and head veil). The left hand is then placed atop the chest, and the right hand is thereafter placed atop the left hand, as if in prayer. The sheets are then folded over the body, first the right side, and then the left, until all three sheets have wrapped the body. The shroud is then secured with ropes: one tied above the head; one tied below the feet; and two across the body. The body is then transported to the mosque (“masjid”) for funeral prayers, known as “Salat al-Janazah,” the entire community participating. Because under Muslim law the body must be buried as soon as possible, there is no viewing of the body.

-Traditional Muslims wear the traditional hijab to funerals. Non-traditional Muslims and non-Muslims should wear conservative, dark-colored clothing. Women should cover their heads and wear long sleeves, tops with high-necklines, and loose-fitting skirts or dresses, preferably ankle-length. Shoes must be removed prior to entering the mosque, so dark stocking or tights or dark socks should be worn. Men should be sure to wear clean, presentable, dark-colored socks. Makeup, if worn by non-Muslims, should be minimal and in natural tones; and nails, if polished, should be in neutral colors. Men should wear dark clothing that covers their arms and legs. Jewelry, if worn, should be understated. And fragrances, if worn, should be minimally applied.

-Salat al-Janazah (funeral prayers) should not be recited inside the mosque. Instead, they should be offered in the courtyard of the mosque or in an adjoining prayer room or study room. Those praying should face “qiblah” (Mecca) and form at least three lines: the first line comprised of men closely related to the deceased; followed by men; followed by children; followed by women.

-After the funeral prayers have been offered, the body is immediately taken to the cemetery for interment. Traditionally, only men are allowed in the cemetery for the burial, but in some communities, all mourners may attend the burial. The grave should be dug perpendicular to the qiblah, and the body is placed on its right side into the grave, facing the qiblah. Those placing the body into the grave should recite the line, “Bismillah wa ala millati rasulillah” (“In the name of Allah and in the faith of the Messenger of Allah”). Once the body has been placed into the grave, a layer of stones or a plank of wood is placed atop the body so as to prevent the body from coming into direct contact with the soil that will fill the grave. (Some jurisdictions require coffin burials). Then each mourner present tosses three handfuls of soil into the grave. Once the grave has been filled, a small stone or some other marker may be placed upon the grave such that it is recognizable. However, elaborated decorations or the erection of prominent gravestones or monuments is prohibited.

-Immediately after the funeral and burial, the immediate family will gather to receive mourners. Typically, the community will provide food for the family for at least three days. Depending on the degree of religiousness of the family, the mourning period may extend up to 40 days. Widows are expected to mourn for 130 days, during which period they should avoid contact with men whom they could potentially marry (known as “na-mahram”). (Of course the rule is overlooked in the case of an emergency, such as when the widow must see a doctor).

-Weeping at the time of death and at the funeral and burial are accepted forms of grieving in Islam. But excessive wailing, tearing of garments, and the breaking of objects, for example, are prohibited since such displays could be interpreted as denial of Allah’s will and wisdom.


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