How coronavirus is changing funeral rites, mourning and grief

Traditions must adapt to social distance rules at a time when for some, physical and spiritual closeness is most needed.

Dr Fuad Nahdi
Fuad Nahdi, a prominent figure in the British Muslim community, died in London recently of long-standing health issues [Courtesy: Nadir Nahdi]

London, United Kingdom – When Fuad Nahdi, a journalist, interfaith activist, and prominent figure in the British Muslim community, died in London on Saturday after suffering from long-standing health issues, there was a global outpouring of grief.

Death in the Islamic tradition is a communal event. Muslims typically gather to perform a funeral prayer led by an imam with the deceased laid in front of the congregation.

But amid the coronavirus pandemic, lockdowns worldwide have changed the way people mourn.

In the United Kingdom, social gatherings are banned, but unlike the case in Italy, funerals are not prohibited. Even so, there are new restrictions on the number of attendees – though the government has yet to specify what that figure is, and authorities have advised against wakes.

Usually, hundreds if not thousands attend the funeral of a prominent Muslim figure. But on Tuesday, only 20 members of Nahdi’s family said final goodbyes in person.

The internet, however, offered some solace to others.

From Kenya to Malaysia, thousands watched Nahdi’s funeral as it was streamed live on Facebook.

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“There is no God but God,” the pallbearers said in Arabic as they carried Nahdi’s coffin, draped with a green velvet cloth bearing a bouquet of tulips.

Nahdi’s family and the funeral directors wore masks in an attempt to protect themselves and others from the pandemic that has so far killed almost 800 people in the United Kingdom.

“It’s really difficult to wear a mask when arranging funerals and dealing with family members,” said Hasina Zaman, the cofounder of Compassionate Funerals, who prepared the burial.

“We’ve come to this point where we’re so separated by our grief through death,” Zaman said. “We can’t show compassion in the way we handle the deceased or relate to the family.”

New measures

Zaman described the government’s guidelines on funeral restrictions as vague, saying there was currently a disproportionate “focus on the living instead of the dead”.

Among undertakers, she added, there was confusion over whether the virus is still active after an individual has died.

Following advice from the Muslim Council of Britain that ghusl, the bathing of the deceased, can be performed if funeral directors wear personal protective equipment, Zaman said she still does the ritual.

“But I think that will become nonexistent as the week goes”, she added.

Hasina Zaman
Hasina Zaman, codirector of Compassionate Funerals, wears a face mask as she prepares for another funeral [Courtesy: Hasina Zaman]

Mansur Ali, a lecturer in Islamic studies at Cardiff University, said the British Board of Scholars and Imams was now referring to “seldom-used points of Islamic law related to funerary rites”.

For instance, ritual bathing will no longer have to be performed, and body bags can be used to replace the kafan, or white burial shroud.

Several Muslim funeral directors have already taken measures to prevent the risk of transmission. 

“They’re putting the deceased into a plastic body bag, they perform tayammum [wiping over the body bag], put the body into a coffin, and it’s straight to the graveyard,” Zaman said.

The pandemic has ended communal prayer and congregational funeral gatherings at many major churches, synagogues, mosques and temples.

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In Iran, one of the world’s worst-hit countries, Shia Muslim burial rituals have been abandoned, with families barred from cemeteries and bodies buried without undergoing ritual bathing.

The United Synagogue, a union of Orthodox British Jewish synagogues, announced on Wednesday that stone-setting ceremonies will be postponed.

All cemeteries have been shut and those sitting shiva, the seven-day period of mourning, have been advised that they cannot have visitors.

In Ireland, the Irish Association of Funeral Directors advised undertakers not to embalm the deceased, and to hold closed-coffin funerals instead of open-casket events.

Regimented and apathetic

Though technology is a solution for some, many are unable to access social media.

In Llangollen, a rural town in northern Wales, Father Lee Taylor presides over four churches scattered in the area.

He said social distancing measures had devastated the vulnerable, elderly members of his congregation who relied on Sunday church notices for information.

“People are dying in my community, and I’m not able to tell [their friends] because they’re not on social media,” he told Al Jazeera.

He said his pastoral practice felt regimented and apathetic at a time when physical touch and presence were a critical source of consolation.

Father Lee Taylor
Father Lee Taylor at a church in Llangollen [Courtesy: Suzanne Ross-Hughes]

“Traditionally, when somebody dies, I visit the next of kin in the family. Being alongside people physically, being next to them, having a cup of tea, putting a hand on their shoulder, praying with them as you hold their hand, it’s such an essential part of that pastoral work.

“When someone dies, you feel isolated as it is. You’re out in the wilderness. With these restrictions and isolation measures, it’s ten times as worse.”

Douglas Davies, director of the Centre for Death and Life studies at Durham University, said loss of a physical community in times of grief would be viscerally felt across all religious and secular traditions.

“There is a sense of loss in society at large, a loss of contact, a loss of human touch,” said Davies. “But this intuitive sense that the whole of society has lost something at this moment might make it easier for individuals who are bereaved to feel like they’re in the same boat as thousands of others.”

He expects that after the pandemic, memorial services will help people to process their emotions.

“Grief doesn’t just happen over a week or a fortnight,” he said. “Even if this viral situation runs over a year, I can see communal memorials could be really valuable at acknowledging that grief is not over in a week. It goes on, and changes.”

Source: Al Jazeera