Rising numbers of Islamic burials pose challenges to German cemeteries

For a long time, German Muslims have predominantly buried their dead abroad: especially the members of the country’s large Turkish community preferred to find their final resting place ‘back home’. Many of the so-called guest workers had envisaged a return to Turkey during their lifetimes but stayed on in Germany for work or for the sake of their families. The return home was delayed until after death.

Yet for some of the children of those who moved to Germany, the ties to their ancestors’ country of origin are increasingly remote. For others, the expense of a costly transfer of the body is simply too high; although this factor is often offset by the high cost of maintaining a grave in Germany. For yet others, warfare in their countries of origin makes a return for burial impossible.

All of this has led to a strong rise in demand for burials in conformity with Islamic rites in Germany. A seemingly innocuous issue, questions and perceptions surrounding these burials are indicative of the complex processes of adaptation Muslim communities undergo in the Western European context – as well as of the challenges this processes involves.

Running afoul of German law

To begin with, a number of Muslim traditions run counter to German legal regulations.((http://www.faz.net/aktuell/gesellschaft/menschen/bestattung-von-muslimen-teilweise-problematisch-14942392.html?printPagedArticle=true#pageIndex_2 )) In Germany, burial heeds to be carried out by an expressly hired professional undertaker; a notion unknown in other parts of the world. At the same time, there is not just a need for familiarity with the Islamic ritual on the part of the undertaker, but also for specific facilities to wash the dead body.

Muslim tradition encourages burial within 24 hours after death. Yet the slowly grinding mills of the German bureaucracy mean that burials cannot generally be accomplished in less than 48 hours. Medical regulations ate at times also adduced against quicker burial.

When it comes to the actual burial site itself, Muslims’ graves are customarily oriented towards Mecca – a requirement that cannot be fulfilled by most regular German cemeteries since the existing lines of graves are ordered differently.

What is more, in a somewhat macabre twist, an ‘eternal resting place’ in Germany generally means a maximum of 20 or 25 years – after that, graves are reallocated. Maintaining a grave beyond that point may be either impossible or dramatically increase the price of the grave lease. According to Muslim tradition, however, the dead should be buried in untouched earth and should have a genuinely eternal last home.

To name but one more hurdle, many administrations and cemeteries across the country require bodies to be buried in a coffin; a practice forbidden in Quranic tradition.

Pragmatic solutions

In many cases, practical solutions have been found.((https://www.welt.de/regionales/hamburg/article162782576/Wie-sich-deutsche-Friedhoefe-fuer-Muslime-veraendern.html )) Specialised Islamic undertaking businesses have cropped up all over the country, offering their services to a Muslim clientele. Especially larger towns and cities have begun to create Muslim sections in their cemeteries in order to accommodate graves oriented towards Mecca.

Some municipalities have been more lenient on the rules restricting early burial, provided that no medical reasons demand that the burial be postponed. A specifically Muslim cemetery is set to open in the city of Wuppertal, offering graves with an unlimited lease.

Enduring challenges

In some cases, however, such solutions have proved elusive. Three German states – Bavaria, Saxony, and Saxony-Anhalt – continue to categorically prohibit burials without a coffin while others no longer require the casket.((http://www.faz.net/aktuell/gesellschaft/menschen/bestattung-von-muslimen-teilweise-problematisch-14942392.html?printPagedArticle=true#pageIndex_2 ))

For some on the political right, upholding the so-called ‘coffin obligation’ (Sargpflicht) has become a matter of principled defence of autochthon values and traditions. (It should perhaps be noted that burials in a coffin were only introduced in Germany in the 18th century, making it a tradition presumably less essential to local identity than one might think.(( http://www.brauchwiki.de/Beerdigungsriten )))

Acts of vandalism

Nor have Muslims’ graves gone unnoticed in largely (post-)Christian neighbourhoods, with some expressing anxieties about the expansion of cemeteries’ Islamic sections. Only a month ago a series of Muslim graves was vandalised and desecrated by swastika signs in the southern town of Aalen.(( http://www.swr.de/swraktuell/bw/aalen-muslimische-graeber-auf-friedhof-geschaendet/-/id=1622/did=19107694/nid=1622/1tyli8u/index.html ))

Yet apparently it is not only the far right that has been bent on destroying graves: in 2011, Islamic religious purists appear to have embarked on a purge in the Muslim section of a cemetery in Bielefeld, smashing angel figurines, terracotta sculptures and other ‘German-style’ adornments.

Since the graves themselves and a number of other Islamic symbols remained untouched, police surmised that the vandals only attacked those elements they deemed offensive to their restrictive understanding of Islam.(( http://www.nw.de/lokal/bielefeld/mitte/mitte/4902487_30-muslimische-Graeber-geschaendet.html ))

The salience of identity politics

The question of death and burial is thus surprisingly revelatory about the nature of Muslim life in Germany. The scope for pragmatic accommodation balancing German legal frameworks and Muslim traditions seem large; yet a fair amount of intransigence from various players in the system also makes this room for manoeuvre more difficult to use. Identity politics in its more toxic forms – emanating from ethnically German xenophobes and Islamist fundamentalists alike – leaves its mark.

More generally, when following this issue in the centre-right section of the mainstream media, one is struck by the whole range of contradictory emotions and expectations that German Muslims are faced with: the implicit reproach of a lack of loyalty is directed at those who choose burial abroad. Yet at the same time, the expansion of Islamic segments on German cemeteries is greeted with a certain amount of suspicion and civilizational angst.(( http://www.faz.net/aktuell/gesellschaft/menschen/bestattung-von-muslimen-teilweise-problematisch-14942392.html?printPagedArticle=true#pageIndex_2 ))

In this manner, all sides manage to project their political ambitions onto Muslims’ final resting places. At times, the resulting debate seems almost as eternal as the peace people from across religious divides are seeking for their dead.

‘He tainted Islam’: Muslim community refuses to bury French priest killer

The Muslim community in Saint-Etienne-du-Rouvray in northern France, where two jihadists slit Father Jacques Hamel’s throat, is refusing to bury one of the attackers, saying that he put a stain on Islam, the French media reported.

Algerian-born 19-year-old Adel Kermiche was one of the two attackers who killed the 85-year-old priest and seriously injured an elderly parishioner. A French citizen, he was living in Saint-Etienne-du-Rouvray and attempted to join Islamic jihadists in Syria back in 2015.

“We’re not going to taint Islam with this person,” Mohammed Karabila, a leader at a local mosque, told Le Parisien, “We won’t participate in preparing the body [for the burial] or the burial.”

A Muslim worshiper, Khalid El Amrani, supported the move, saying that the refusal to bury the terrorist is “normal.”

“What this young man did is sinful,” the 25-year-old engineer said, “He is no longer part of our community.”

Now it is up to the local authorities to decide how to issue the burial permit for Kermiche.

Father Hamel was killed on Tuesday after having his throat slit during a hostage situation at the local church. French police killed the attackers, Kermiche and 19-year-old Abdel Malik Petitjean, as they tried to flee the 17th century Catholic Church.

A Muslim worshiper, Khalid El Amrani, supported the move, saying that the refusal to bury the terrorist is “normal.”

“What this young man did is sinful,” the 25-year-old engineer said, “He is no longer part of our community.” Now it is up to the local authorities to decide how to issue the burial permit for Kermiche.

Father Hamel was killed on Tuesday after having his throat slit during a hostage situation at the local church. French police killed the attackers, Kermiche and 19-year-old Abdel Malik Petitjean, as they tried to flee the 17th century Catholic Church.

The pair had previously pledged allegiance to Islamic State (IS, formerly ISIS/ISIL) terrorist group, who subsequently claimed responsibility for the attack.

Following the tragedy French Prime Minister Manuel Valls said he was considering a temporary ban on the foreign financing of mosques. Valls said France needed to re-think its relationship with Islam. On Sunday Muslims attended Catholic Mass in churches across France and abroad. Up to 200 Muslims gathered at the towering Gothic cathedral in Rouen, only a few kilometers from Saint-Etienne-du-Rouvray.

“We’re very touched,” Archbishop Dominique Lebrun told broadcaster BFMTV.

“It’s an important gesture of fraternity. They’ve told us, and I think they’re sincere, that it’s not Islam which killed Jacques Hamel.”

At Notre Dame cathedral in Paris, Dalil Boubakeur, the rector of the Paris Mosque, said that Muslims want to live in peace.

“The situation is serious,” he said. “The time has come, to come together, so as not to be divided.” The move to attend the Catholic services was made by the French Council for the Muslim Faith (CFCM), which dubbed the attack as a “cowardly assassination.”

The Muslims should “show our Christian brothers the solidarity and compassion of France’s Muslims in the wake of this new tragedy that has struck our country through an attack on a place of worship,” the group said.

France has been on high alert following a deadly attack in Nice on July 14. At least 84 people were killed when a truck plowed through a crowd during Bastille Day celebrations. Weapons and grenades were found in the vehicle following the rampage. Several days later a news agency linked to IS released a statement in which the group claimed responsibility for the attack.

Lorraine opens new Muslim burial plot

Between 150 and 200 people assisted at the inauguration of the Barthou cemetery, the new cemetery of Vandœuvre-lès-Nancy. The new cemetery contains a section of plots for Muslims that is over 2,000 m². The new burial plot is the result of “a long process,” according to Saïd Derbani, President of the Association of Muslims of Lorraine (AML), that, for ten years, has supported the project. While the city’s primary cemetery has a section of plots for Muslims, it has been full for many years.

The cemetery is responding to a “real need,” stated Derbani. He explained that in recent years there has been a shift from believers wanting to be buried in their home countries, to a new generation that wishes to be buried in France. “A 90 year-old woman who converted [to Islam] would ask me every time she saw me where she would be buried,” he said. As a result the new section is a source of “relief” for many.

“Integration takes place during active life. But also in the ground,” Derbani contended. “According to the Ministry of the Interior’s statistics, between 75% and 80% of Muslims who died in France are repatriated to their home countries to be buried. But it is clear that the number of those wishing to be buried in France has not stopped growing, notably within the new generations.

“It is more normal for citizens who have spent the majority of their life on French soil and for their children who have only known the homeland of France,” declared Amine Nedji, president of the Lorraine Regional Council of the Muslim Faith.

There are more than 200 Muslim plots in France. However, “This number is less than the growing need. It’s often due to the lack of political willingness that the memorandum is not found in certain towns. This is due to two reasons: certain politicians have a truncated and biased reading of the principle of secularism…Others simply prefer simply to close the discussion on the subject,” said Nedji.

The need is growing as there are estimated to be over five million Muslims living in France.

Book planned on burial of marathon bombing suspect

BOSTON — After Peter Stefan offered to handle funeral arrangements for a suspect in the Boston Marathon bombing, he was besieged by criticism, picketers and angry phone calls from people who called him a “traitor” and “un-American.”

A year later, Stefan is writing a book about his experience.

“I just wanted to put down exactly what happened and what I felt like. I got loads of threats,” Stefan said Wednesday.

“But you can’t just bury people who are on the straight and narrow. What are you going to do with the rest of them? We’re not barbarians here. We bury the dead.”

Stefan, the owner of a Worcester funeral home, said he still feels disturbed by the reaction he got when he agreed to take the remains of Tamerlan Tsarnaev last year after a funeral home in North Attleborough, where the body was initially sent, was picketed by protesters.

Stefan’s funeral home was also picketed and it took days to find a cemetery willing to bury the remains. Tsarnaev was finally buried in a Muslim cemetery in Doswell, Va.

Stefan said he did not accept payment for his services but asked, instead, for a contribution to a fund he set up five years ago to help low-income people pay for their prescription drugs and co-pays for doctor visits. Tsarnaev’s uncle contributed $1,500 to the fund, Stefan said.

The funeral director said he has been working on the book for a few months and is currently negotiating with a publisher. He hopes the book — tentatively titled “Last Rites for the Boston Marathon Bomber” — will be published this summer. Stefan’s plans for the book were first reported by the Worcester Telegram & Gazette.

Twin bombings at the April 15, 2013, marathon killed three people and injured more than 260. Authorities say Tsarnaev and his younger brother, Dzhokhar, built two pressure cooker bombs and placed them near the marathon finish line.

Tamerlan Tsarnaev died following a shootout with police. Dzhokhar Tsarnaev is currently awaiting trial.

More Muslim burials without legal obligation for coffins

November 7, 2013

 

Like other German cities and States, the city of Rüsselsheim in the State of Hesse permits Muslims to bury their dependent community members according to Islamic faith and rituals. The graves are headed towards Mekka and include religious texts. Since March 1st 2013, the cemetery and funeral law of Hesse permits a burial without coffin but shroud. Also, the Islamic ablution is allowed. The law reform was implemented to offer Muslims an alternative opportunity to bury their deceased in Germany without returning them to their countries of origin.

 

Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung: http://www.faz.net/aktuell/rhein-main/region/neue-grabfelder-ohne-sargpflicht-mehr-muslimische-bestattungen-12651411.html

A Muslim daughter’s role in preparing her mother for burial – by Momtaz Begum-Hossain

October 25, 2013

I saw a wooden coffin, I answered the phone call to tell us that Umma, as we called our mother in Bengali, had left us, and later that same night saw her lying still like a ragdoll in the hospital ward. The burial was almost immediate. Within hours I was at the register office recording Umma’s death to get the certificate we needed to release her body. At home, my sisters were collating every teacup and saucer she had ever bought, for the well-wishers who were flooding our house with prayers.

We knew about the concept of heaven and hell and were warned that when a parent dies, their children’s prayers are the most important ones. Although a whole village in Bangladesh spent three days reading prayers for Umma, ours would have most impact.

Packed away in a suitcase in my parents’ bedroom was the white shroud that Umma was to be buried in. It had been washed in holy water from Mecca, for when the time came. She had been so busy talking about death and reminding us where to find the fabric that she never had a chance to explain to me and my three sisters that as her daughters we had duties after her death. In Islam it is a daughter’s duty to wash her mother and prepare her for the afterlife; boys attend to deceased fathers. Having never attended a funeral, I didn’t know what this involved. I soon discovered it wasn’t an elaborate bathe, but a wash down with sponges, towels, buckets of water and the bar of soap from my carrier bag.

There were two elder women in charge who directed us where and how to clean her. Umma was so devoted to her religion that I sensed she would be proud her daughters were taking part in such a symbolic ritual. As her limbs were lifted and we took it in turns to scrub her, it seemed as if her expressions were changing. She was a puppet, being moved, bent over, turned from side to side. I didn’t know it was possible to get this close to a dead person, let alone share in the most intimate experience their body would ever go through. She was washed an odd number of times. I can’t remember which number we settled on, just that the procedure was repeated until we were tired.

Afterwards she was dried with towels and scented with rose water. The room was suffused with the fragrance of Turkish delight, though she never wore perfume. Her beauty regime consisted of applying hair oil and moisturiser. I never saw her wear makeup and she had the smallest wardrobe of anyone I’ve ever known; just a handful of saris and blouses and petticoats she had made herself. Just as she had led a modest life, so it was for her funeral. Umma’s hair was combed and plaited and her body wrapped in the white fabric that Ubba, my father, had brought back from Mecca. When she was wrapped and laid to rest we anointed her with more rose water. We took her to a newly opened Muslim burial ground, she was buried there and her spot was marked with a hand-painted a plaque with my mother’s name and dates of birth and death.

Not everyone has a chance to say goodbye properly to someone they love, but I did more than that.

The Guardian: http://www.theguardian.com/lifeandstyle/2013/oct/26/muslim-daughter-mother-burial

Virginia county officials say they’re trying to determine if laws broken in Marathon bombing suspect’s secret burial

DOSWELL, Va. — Officials in the county where the remains of suspected Boston Marathon bomber Tamerlan Tsarnaev have been buried say they were stunned to learn of the burial and they are looking into whether the law was followed in the process.

“As long as everything was done legally, there’s really very little we can do,” said Floyd Thomas, chairman of the board of supervisors of Caroline County. “What we would do is make sure that all of the laws regarding this particular burial were adhered to. If they were not, then I believe we would have to look at undoing what happened.”

Caroline County Sheriff Tony Lippa Jr. said he had alerted Attorney General Ken Cuccinelli about the incident, and was told Cuccinelli was looking into whether all laws were followed.

Tsarnaev was buried in a small Muslim cemetery in Doswell, a community about 15 miles from Richmond, the state capital.

Tsarnaev’s remains are interred at the Al-Barzakh Cemetery, the first Muslim cemetery in central Virginia, according to the Virginia woman who helped arrange the burial and to Islamic Funeral Services of Virginia.

Where do we put Tamerlan Tsarnaev?

Worcester is some 40 miles from Boston, but it was no means unaffected by the Marathon bombing.  Worcester shares a close connection with Boston as many in the Worcester area work in Boston and we all know the city well.  The Boston Marathon bombing was not simply a local tragedy; it was a crime committed against our families, our neighbors, our friends.

 

National media reports have recently focused on protests outside the Worcester funeral home where Tamerlan Tsarnaev’s body waits for burial. But local news reporting has been far more nuanced, surveying the range of ways we as a community are working through our own feelings about the bombing and its perpetrators, all the while trying to find hope within and through our vulnerability and anger.

 

But the issue remains.  What do we do with Tamerlan Tsarnaev?

 

“I do understand no one wants to associate their names with such evil events.”

 

So said Ruslan Tsarni, who came here to Worcester to perform the burial rites for his nephew.  Death has always raised the specter of contagion—it’s one reason why we have cemeteries.  But the question regarding Tamerlan Tsarnaev moves us beyond this.  Intellectually, we have tried to find a place for him and his actions, speculating in alternatively careful and uneven ways about the roles he played in life: son, brother, husband, father, Chechen, Muslim, boxer, terrorist.  Now the uncomfortable question confronts us immediately:  Where do we put him?

 

On the other hand a Worcester community activist plans to start a campaign to raise money to send the body of Boston Marathon bombing suspect Tamerlan Tsarnaev (TAM’-ehr-luhn tsahr-NEYE’-ehv) to Russia for burial.

 

Cambridge, where the Tsarnaev family lived, says it does not want the body.

William Breault tells The Telegram & Gazette he will announce the fund on Monday outside the Graham Putnam & Mahoney Funeral Parlors.

Bomb suspect’s uncle, in Mass., says he knows ‘no one wants to associate … with such evil’

WORCESTER, Mass. — The uncle of a Boston Marathon bombing suspect killed in a gun battle with police arrived at a funeral home Sunday to make arrangements for his burial.

Ruslan Tsarni of Montgomery Village, Md., and three other men met with Worcester funeral home director Peter Stefan. The men who accompanied Tsarni plan to wash and perform Muslim burial rites on the body of 26-year-old Tamerlan Tsarnaev, Stefan said.

Stefan said he has received calls from people criticizing him and calling him “un-American” for his willingness to handle Tsarnaev’s funeral.

“We take an oath to do this. Can I pick and choose? No. Can I separate the sins from the sinners? No,” he said. “We are burying a dead body. That’s what we do.”

Stefan said Tsarnaev’s uncle told him that he is anxious to bury his nephew.

“They just want to get it over with. They want to get him buried,” Stefan said.

Tsarni has denounced the acts that his nephews — Tamerlan and younger brother Dzhokhar — are accused of committing and has said that they have brought shame to the family and the entire Chechen ethnicity. The brothers are ethnic Chechens from Russia who came to the United States about a decade ago with their parents. The parents returned to Russia’s restive republic of Dagestan last year.