Muslims bury their dead with neither flourish nor casket, but a ritual cleansing before the body is quickly returned to the earth, cocooned in a white shroud. But this tradition handed down over centuries has eluded Muslims around Washington, who, like Jews, do not practice embalming -- and are served by just one licensed mortician.Sounds reasonable. So, what't the problem?
That's changing, though. Virginia licensed its first Muslim-owned funeral home last month, in Woodbridge. And Friday, a committee of Maryland lawmakers approved a bill that would open the industry to Muslims by exempting them from embalmings as they learn the trade.
If the General Assembly approves the bill, Muslims say they would be spared long trips to find mortuaries that will perform a last ablution.
The Maryland legislation is the work of two state delegates, Saqib Ali (D-Montgomery) and Samuel I. Rosenberg (D-Baltimore), who have formed a politically deft partnership: a freshman and the legislature's first Muslim, and a Jew who says he is drawn to issues of religious freedom.
The bill asks the state Board of Morticians to issue a permit to religious leaders, who would take care of the body from death to burial instead of licensed morticians. Muslims say they pay thousands of dollars for embalming, caskets, flowers and other services they don't use, creating an urgent need for morticians who follows their custom. But several who testified at a hearing last week said the mortuary industry, which could face new competition, has shut them out.
The bill rankled funeral home owners, who said they oppose giving one group special treatment, on the grounds that public health could be compromised.I know from my own experience in burying family members that, by law, the grave had to have a liner. Of course, the cemetery director presses for a vault, a much more expensive alternative. Do certain cemeteries or certain sections of cemeteries get an exemption from that law based on religious reasons? Just wondering.
The bill's language does not use the word Muslim, as did a similar measure that failed twice in recent years. The delegates said they tried to make their legislation palatable to those who might bristle at a law designed for one community. But now, as many as 300,000 Muslims live in the District and its Virginia and Maryland suburbs.
"I heard from many Muslims throughout Maryland," Ali testified last month before the House Health and Government Operations committee. "There is an impediment to getting a mortician's license."
Even if Muslims would agree to perform embalmings, he said, no one in the industry would take them as apprentices. "The funeral industry is insular and family-owned. They have their own people in the pipeline."
The state's leading mortuary owners say that entrusting dead bodies to religious leaders who lack training in how to handle the bodies could expose them to HIV, tuberculosis, hepatitis or other diseases.
"There could be leakage from bodies that are autopsied in hospitals," said Earl Canapp, executive vice president of Ruck Funeral Homes in Baltimore, a member of the state board....
As to embalming, except for public health reasons, embalming is not required for burial, though many mourners opt for that embalming because of certain funeral rites. Shouldn't all morticians be qualified to embalm?