Coronavirus: NYC Muslims struggle to hold traditional burials

From rising costs to social distancing limits, traditional Islamic funeral practices have been upended by coronavirus.

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    A Muslim woman kneels for midday prayers in a nearly empty Times Square in Manhattan during the outbreak of the coronavirus disease (COVID-19) in New York City, New York [Mike Segar/Reuters]
    A Muslim woman kneels for midday prayers in a nearly empty Times Square in Manhattan during the outbreak of the coronavirus disease (COVID-19) in New York City, New York [Mike Segar/Reuters]

    With bodies piling up at hospitals and morgues, and funeral homes turning families away due to a lack of capacity, New York City has been stretched to its limits by the COVID-19 pandemic.

    The crisis has touched thousands of grieving families, virtually all of which have been forced to navigate chaos after their loved one's death from the deadly respiratory virus.

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    The funeral process can be even more complicated for Muslim New Yorkers, who make up about three percent of the population across the city's five boroughs, because a series of religious practices guides the burials.

    "It's overwhelming - just the amount of illness, the amount of deaths," said Imam Khalid Latif, executive director of the Islamic Center at New York University (NYU), about the general feeling in the city.

    He said that early on, it became clear that "funerals and things happening at end of life were likely really difficult for a lot of people" in the Muslim community.

    "A lot of people [were] reaching out saying, 'We just can't connect to anybody, and the places we are connecting to, they're telling us it's going to be days before anything can actually happen'."

    Rising costs

    Latif said families have also raised concerns about the cost of burials.

    An Islamic funeral service in New York City would typically cost around $2,000, including a plot of land for burial, Latif said, but these days, some members of the Muslim community said they were being charged around $10,000.

    "In Islam, the funeral rites are considered a communal obligation," he told Al Jazeera. "Here, we have a responsibility to ensure that people who can't afford it are still able to have it done."

    NYC - Mosque
    Packages of bread sit on a table with a crate of apples for passersby to take, outside the closed Masjid at-Taqwa mosque in the Brooklyn borough of New York after the mosque closed due to COVID-19. [Kathy Willens/AP Photo] 

    Latif helped set up an online fundraiser that collected nearly $195,000 this month to support Muslim Funeral Services of New York, a Brooklyn-based group also known as the Janazah Project.

    The money will be dispensed to funeral homes to bolster their services - including the purchase of vehicles and refrigerated trucks to transport and store bodies when hospitals are over-capacity, and personal protective equipment for workers.

    Latif said financial strain should not be a reason people do not get a chance to properly remember their loved ones, so needy families will also directly receive some of the money to cover funeral costs.

    "To me, that's a really unfortunate reason as to why someone who is already in a lot of emotional strife will have added anxiety that doesn't allow for them to grieve," he said.

    Shifting practices

    Financial concerns are especially prevalent among people employed in public-facing industries - such as taxi or Uber drivers, restaurant staff, or construction workers - who have taken a hit during the pandemic.

    Muslim New Yorkers make up a high percentage of those workers in the city, said Ahmed Mohamed, litigation director at the Council on American-Islamic Relations New York chapter (CAIR-NY).

    "Especially for immigrant communities, telework, work from home, is not a possibility. Having to be confined to your home means you don't have a job and you don't have a paycheque," Mohamed said.

    He said many traditional Muslim practices have been upended during the COVID-19 crisis: families cannot be with a sick loved-one because the illness is so contagious and most hospitals have strict visitation rules in place, and public gatherings have been restricted, too. The challenges also come as Muslims worldwide prepare for the start of the holy month of Ramadan.

    Muslims - NYC
    A Muslim health worker prays outside a special coronavirus intake area at Maimonides Medical Center on April 06, 2020 in the Borough Park neighbourhood of the Brooklyn borough of New York City [Spencer Platt/Getty Images/AFP] 

    In New York state, funeral homes and cemeteries have been designated as essential services, but the government urged them to avoid in-person gatherings. "If in-person services must be held, the gathering should be limited to only immediate family, with as few persons physically present as possible," the state said in a letter to funeral directors on April 10.

    As a result, the Muslim community - like other religious groups across the United States - has had to adapt to meet public health recommendations designed to reduce the potential spread of the coronavirus.

    Mosques have shuttered their doors, and Friday afternoon prayers - as well as other practices, such as halaqa (communal religious gatherings) and khotba (the sermon before Friday prayer) - are taking place online instead. Some families are live-streaming funerals, as well.

    "Obviously, it's not what the Muslim community would do during a normal basis, where we come together to better relieve some pain and ease people's sorrows during those times," Mohamed told Al Jazeera.

    Unfounded rumours

    Despite those stop-gap measures, uncertainty around burials remains a source of concern.

    A rumour that Muslims were being buried in mass graves recently ripped through the community, said Raja Abdulhaq, executive director of Majlis Ash-Shura Islamic Leadership Council of New York, an umbrella group for over 90 mosques and organisations.

    "We had imams calling us where their community members are calling them crying, worrying about their loved ones being buried in mass graves without seeing them. This was really scary for the whole community," Abdulhaq said.

    The group reached out to city officials and investigated the claim, and found the rumour to be untrue, he told Al Jazeera.

    "What's happening is that hospitals are creating temporary morgues remotely, away from the hospitals, so they can continue to have enough capacity for the new bodies that are coming in," he said. "But this is very specific only to unclaimed bodies."

    In a news conference on April 9, New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio said each body "will be treated individually and specifically" and burial plans will be coordinated with the families of the deceased.

    "We clearly have painful but real contingency plans to deal with anything that might come up ahead, but with a very clear standard: dignity for the families. Every family is treated individually," he said.

    Another rumour that Muslim bodies were being cremated - a practice that is forbidden in Islam - was also false, Abdulhaq said. "So far we have no cases and we have no reason to believe that this is happening."

    "While the exact number of Muslims who have died from COVID-19 is unavailable, Abdulhaq said the city's Bengali community was hit particularly hard.

    'Unprecedented time'

    In Islam, the body of a deceased person is washed and shrouded, a prayer is performed, and then the body is buried directly into the ground without any embalming, explained Latif, the NYU imam.

    But he said that in exceptional circumstances, such as during today's COVID-19 pandemic, when some of those religious practices cannot take place for whatever reason, alternatives are possible.

    "An individual will essentially tap their hands on clean dirt or earth, and positions their hands then on different parts of the deceased's body as a purification process in lieu of the washing," Latif said, by way of example. That process is known as tayammum.

    Latif acknowledged that many community members are still struggling with what to do when a loved one passes away, or when people get sick with COVID-19.

    "It's really hard for people right now who are losing loved ones because there's so much happening that prevents them from being there with them."

    He encouraged people to reach out to one another to stave off isolation - especially in New York City, a place that he said can be particularly lonely. "It's an unprecedented time," Latif said. "And where government has failed and has not done its part, we just need to step up and do what we can and come together."

    SOURCE: Al Jazeera News