The death toll during the COVID-19 pandemic has been alarming across Europe, and all over the world, since early 2020. In this context, burying loved ones has become a difficult task for many Muslim communities in Europe, as it has added a further challenge to an already precarious situation.
For years now, Muslim communities have claimed that there are not enough Muslim cemeteries in Europe, and only a limited number of designated areas for Muslim burials in municipal cemeteries, where they can bury their loved ones in accordance with Islamic laws and traditions – including coffin-less burials under the ground and within 24 hours after death, with bodies lying on their right side and facing the Kaaba in Mecca.
Repatriation of corpses to countries of origin has been a common practice for decades, especially for immigrants of the first generation. One of the reasons for this choice is religious, since some believe that Islamic funeral rites can be thoroughly followed only in Muslim countries . This procedure is complicated – as it involves not only flights but also consular administrators and specialist funeral providers – and costly : it is a common practice for families to have insurances with banks in their countries of origin to cover the expenses of repatriating the corpses and the burials in their hometowns . When families do not have these insurances, it is common that mosques or villagers in the country of origin make voluntary collects to pay for the transportation .
During the COVID-19 pandemic, the situation of Muslim burials has been further aggravated for three main reasons. First, the repatriation of corpses has been interrupted due to the closing of borders as a measure to fight against the pandemic all over the world. Therefore, the burial in European cemeteries has become the only option. Given these circumstances, the European Council of Moroccan Ulema stated that, if needed be, people could state in their wills that, after being temporarily buried in European soil, they would like to be repatriated to their country of birth when the situation allows it . Second, many Muslim cemeteries and Muslim corners in municipal cemeteries have been running out of graves. And third, given that cremation is prohibited according to Islamic law – as it is considered a violation of the dignity of the human body –, cremation of remains of people who died from COVID-19 has been a great concern for Muslim communities in Europe .
The UK and Europe’s largest Muslim cemetery
In order to overcome these challenges, the billionaire Issa brothers are planning to build a new Muslim cemetery, the Issa Memorial Garden. –With a £3.5bn fortune, Zuber and Mohsin Issa are businessmen and founders of Euro Garages, a chain of over 5,200 petrol filling stations operating in Europe and the USA that has become the UK’s second-largest privately owned company and that in 2020 bought one of Britain’s largest supermarket chains, Asda . This new cemetery would be built in northern England, west of the town of Blackburn (Lancashire), and would accommodate 35,000 burial plots in a space of 33 hectares. The graveyard will become Europe’s largest Muslim cemetery, with 25,000 more plots than the current largest Muslim cemetery in Europe, the Gardens of Peace – which opened in 2002 in Greater London.
According to the charitable Issa Foundation, which is managing the project, the need for burial plots has become crucial during the COVID-19 pandemic . The leader of the University of York’s Cemetery Research Group assured The National that the “red light” has been “shining for decades,” but with the COVID-19 pandemic Muslim sections in cemeteries across the UK have faced a capacity crisis . Some cemeteries started to refuse Muslim burials after reaching full capacity – as, for example, Birmingham’s Handsworth cemetery in November 2020. Consequently, thousands of applications for new plots were submitted to local authorities across the country: the Rest Gardens in Ripponden (West Yorkshire) asked for permission in 2020 to create 1,665 new plots for Muslims, and the Worcester Muslim cemetery (Worcestershire) asked for further 750 spaces. In addition to the Issa Memorial Garden, other projects to build Muslim-only cemeteries are in the work, for example in Solihull (West Midlands), where the goal is to create 5,040 graves.
In early 2020, the UK government’s emergency COVID-19 bill included mandatory cremation for all who died from coronavirus. However, after Muslim and Jewish communities expressed their concerns about these plans – as cremation is against their beliefs regarding burial practices –, the government amended the bill stating that “personal choice for body disposal will be respected as far as possible” .
Similarly, Imams and Muslim community leaders in Italy are calling for more burial plots. Some big Italian cities, such as Naples, the country’s third-largest city and one with a fast-growing Muslim community, still have no Muslim cemetery. The idea of establishing one in this city made some progress in recent years, but there has been a lack of funding for its construction. In addition, while Italian law allows for separate spaces in cemeteries for non-Catholics since 1990, these spaces often do not cater to Muslim burial rites. This is why some Muslims keep petitioning for separate land, while others tend to send their loved ones’ bodies to their countries of origin .
Imams have stressed that the pain of the COVID-19 pandemic has been deepened when families could not find a place to bury their dead, given that there were no Muslim cemeteries nearby nor Muslim sections in the town cemeteries, and sending corpses to the countries of origin was not an option anymore. In many cases, Muslims in Italy have had to travel long distances to bury their dead in Muslim cemeteries in other Italian regions. But even this option – following lockdowns and domestic travel restrictions – became challenging. In some occasions, Muslims had to keep the bodies of their loved ones in morgues or at home while seeking a space to lay them to rest . Some went as far as considering cremation. The Islamic Federation of Campania told Al Jazeera that the need for an Islamic cemetery has always been there. With the coronavirus situation, it has become more acute .
The 1905 law of laïcité forbids the building of public cemeteries restricted to one religion only, with the exception of the Alsace-Moselle region in the north-east of the country, (since this province was not part of France when this law was passed). This is why in 2012 the first Muslim cemetery run by a local council was opened in the south of Strasbourg . It had room for 1,000 grave plots, and spread over 1.5 hectares. In Marseille and in Bobigny (outskirts of Paris), there are private Muslim cemeteries .
In all other regions, public cemeteries have to accommodate corners for different faiths, including Islam. But these corners are rapidly reaching full capacity. As early as 2012, the Regional Council of the Muslim Faith in Rhone-Alpes – one of the 25 councils that integrate the French Council of the Muslim Faith (CFCM by its initials in French) – estimated that the country would need to increase the number of Muslim corners by 300 percent to meet the demand (six million Muslims currently reside in France). This increase is due to the fact that the younger generations of Muslims want to be buried in France..
In addition to the challenges brought by the COVID-19 pandemic, Muslim cemeteries also face the threat of Islamophobia. In mid-December 2021, the Muslim corner of the Mulhouse city’s cemetery (east of France) was vandalised, adding up to the wave of Islamophobic acts throughout the country. The Mayor of Mulhouse and the CFCM condemned the acts of vandalism, and a MP from the Democratic Movement (MoDem) – a party allied with Emmuanel Macron (LREM) – expressed solidarity with the Muslim community and urged the victims to go to the police station to lodge a complaint .
Many German Muslims have buried their dead abroad for decades, particularly in Turkey, although this trend could be starting to change [See previous article]. According to a study by POMEPS in 2018, Islamic burial grounds are still a relatively rare sight in Germany. In fact, only about 250 out of the 32,000 public cemeteries in the country have sections reserved for Muslims .
According to the POMEPS study, Muslim graves display significant cultural and linguistic diversity (from Arabic to Bosnian, Farsi, German, English and Turkish), tending even towards multilingual messages in more recent graves, and often mention the country of origin. The presence of flags on the tombstones (which are mostly Turkish) is also fairly common. According to the study, these architectural elements are in part a response to the political challenges faced by Muslim communities, representing “an innovative step towards the normalization of Islamic symbols in the German landscape” . These symbols, on the one hand, acknowledge and make explicit the migratory history of some communities, and on the other hand reflect the reality of their presence in the country, becoming a reference point for future generations.
The Cooperation Accord of 1992 between the Spanish state and the Islamic Commission of Spain (CIE by its initials in Spanish) grants the Muslim communities the right of Islamic corners in municipal cemeteries, as well as of private Islamic cemeteries. However, the CIE has expressed concerns that there has been little progress in this domain since the agreement was reached three decades ago. There are currently 35 Muslim cemeteries in the country, while the estimate is that the Muslim population amounts to 2,2 million. Moreover, according to the CIE, there are still many municipalities without Muslim corners in their graveyards, obliging Muslims to seek for burial in other cities, and sometimes other regions: 5 out of the 19 Spanish autonomous communities and cities lack areas for Muslim burials (neither public nor private), according to El Halal . However, even access to these cemeteries is sometimes limited, as some of them have restricted their services to people registered in the same province or municipality.
In January 2020, shortly before the outburst of the COVID-19 pandemic, the now late president of the CIE, Riay Tatary – who died a few months later due to the coronavirus – warned that the existing Muslim cemeteries were not sufficient. During the pandemic, the Muslim cemeteries reached their maximum capacity, as in many other European countries. In some instances, as it happened in the autonomous community of Madrid, Moroccan consuls helped build dozens of new graves to face the high demand for burials .
An added challenge for Muslim communities is the cost of the burial. Being buried in the ground (not in niches) and without a coffin (as the corpses should be in direct contact with the ground) may cost over 3,000 euros. While some autonomous communities explicitly forbid the burial of corpses without coffin, those that allow it often require an hydrogeological investigation of the ground to make sure that it meets all safety measures, which rises prices and complicates the approval of licenses . Due to this situation, in April 2020 the Moroccan Embassy announced that it would help with the costs of the burial in Spain of Moroccan citizens who lacked financial means . While the repatriation of corpses is a common practice – mainly to Morocco –, the closing of borders during the coronavirus pandemic made the burial in Spanish graveyards the only possible option .
Given these circumstances, some leaders have complained that Muslims have had to undergo practices “contrary to our traditions,” as an imam in Algeciras (Andalusia) told El Confidencial. He was referring to burials in coffins, in niches above ground level, as well as to attempts at mandatory cremation to stop the spread of the coronavirus . Nonetheless, according to Isabel Romero, the director of the Halal Institute – an organization based in Cordoba (Andalusia) that certifies halal products and services in Spain and Latin America –, the unprecedented circumstances of the pandemic do allow for exceptions to the requisites of traditions. Along the same line, the European Council of Moroccan Ulema stated it is not the location of burial that makes someone holy but rather their deeds in life .
By Ada Mullol