Britain is a multicultural nation with diverse religions, cultures and beliefs celebrated side by side. So at some time, you may attend the funeral of a friend or family member, which is based on traditions and customs that are unfamiliar to you.
It’s sometimes difficult not to be preoccupied by thinking about what to wear, what to say and how to act at a funeral. So contemplating what’s involved when the ceremony is of a faith we’re unfamiliar with can make us anxious to ensure we say goodbye in a way that’s respectful of traditions and beliefs. We spoke to Mohamed Omer, board member at Gardens of Peace Muslim cemetery, to shine a light on what happens when you’re attending a Muslim funeral.
“Don’t worry too much - you might be thinking, What’s going to happen? Am I going to say the right thing? Am I going to offend somebody?” says Mohamed. “Well, no, you won’t. Just go with what you would say to someone of a Christian faith.
“There is a misconception that a non-Muslim is not allowed to attend a Muslim funeral. That’s just not true. We actually encourage non-Muslims to attend Muslim funerals, because it is an opportunity to educate them on how we do it. We try and explain it to them, and encourage them to look at the similarities between Islam and other faiths.
The funeral rites
If you are a Christian or have attended Christian funerals, some of the funeral rites may be familiar. “For example,” says Mohamed, “As according to the Christian Bible, after interment they say, ‘Earth to earth, dust to dust, ashes to ashes’. We do the same – we say that God created you from earth and to earth you will go back. We will then have a prayer for the deceased.
“There are certain conditions in a Muslim funeral,” he adds, explaining: “At the time of interment, we do not usually allow women to be present. They can observe from a distance, that is not an issue whatsoever.”
Muslims are traditionally buried in a shroud, rather than a coffin: “The reason is that we believe that the Almighty said that we are created from earth,” explains Mohamed. “And when we are taken away, He wants us to be reunited with what He created us from.
“The shroud burial is very simple. The person will just be wrapped up in a white cloth, which is unstitched and as natural as possible – because they came into this world with nothing and they will go back with nothing, except their deeds.”
Muslims will usually choose burial over cremation: “The reason that we do not cremate is that God gave you the ownership of your body and you are accountable for your body in front of God,” Mohamed says “God will say, ‘You had this body, what did you do with it?’ And therefore for us, desecration of the body is not permitted. That is the main, fundamental reason, with the second reason being that for us we usually associate fire with the fire of Hell, and therefore we will never cremate anybody.
“Muslims also prefer to bury the body as quickly as possible,” he adds. “For us, we believe that if a human being was a very devout person, a religious person, he needs to go to the grave as quickly as possible, so that he can seek recompense from the Lord for all his good actions in the world. Which begs the question, what if the person was not a good person? Should we delay the funeral? No – we believe that God is almighty and all merciful, he will forgive each and every one of us.”
What to wear
Dressing appropriately for a Muslim funeral, says Mohamed, is much as you’d expect at any funeral. Just as it might be considered inappropriate to dress overly casually for a secular or Christian funeral, you will probably want to dress soberly, in smart, clean clothes for a Muslim funeral.
“It’s like every other religion,” he explains. “When you go into a Muslim cemetery, you should be dressed appropriately. Even if you’re going to a Christian cemetery, if you wear a mini skirt, or revealing clothes, or shorts, it’s disrespectful.
“All we’re asking is that people be mindful of what they are doing.”
After the funeral
After a Muslim burial, mourners will usually go back to the home of the next of kin of the person who has died.
“Here you should express your condolences,” says Mohamed. “We will not have the wake, we will not have a ‘good send-off’ in terms of the alcohol, but food will usually be available.”
Finding the right words to say to the bereaved doesn’t always come easy, so go with your heart and mind. “Just say the same thing that you would say to a person who is grieving of a different faith,” Mohamed advises.
“Or, ‘I am sorry, may God give you good health and may God make it easier for you.’ This what we would do - and it’s not so different from what you may be used to.”