Monday, March 05, 2007

Muslim Funeral Arrangements

From this March 5, 2007 article in the Washington Post:
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.

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.
Sounds reasonable. So, what't the problem?
The bill rankled funeral home owners, who said they oppose giving one group special treatment, on the grounds that public health could be compromised.


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....
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.

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?


Aminah said...

As salam alaikum, My name is Aminah. I just happened to stumble across this article by googling muslim morticians and I was surprised to see what I had read. My husband and I are reverts al hamduiallah and he was asking me about being a mortician. Well, in reading I understand that muslims have a culutral preparation in burial for the deceased but what I dont understand is to why there can not license morticians that are muslim to handle the bodies for islamic law.
Overall, I hope to see that we allow muslim morticians to carry out these performances for muslims to continue living a peaceful life and without unsubtanial conflicts. Thank you.

Muslim Funeral Director said...

Any Muslim interested in becoming a licensed Mortician/Funeral Director, please contact me. Sister Rose,

J said...

In the state of VA, it is legal for the family to take care of the dead and embalming is not required. You can use a shroud or cardboard box to bury the dead. Do not let anyone tell you otherwise. Do a little bit of research and you will get answers to your questions and concerns.

Muslim Funeral Director said...

J-All due respect to your intentions; however, please be advised that unless a person is a lawyer, or death care expert, please do not advise the general public on funerals and funeral law. I am a death care expert. I have a BS IN FUNERAL SERVICE. When I click the link you provided, I read: "The local health department requires this document (the death certificate) within 72 hours." THIS IS NOT CORRECT> 12 VAC AC5-550-390 VA VITAL STATICTIC LAW reads "prior to final disposal or removal from the common wealth, and within three days." This means the death certificate should be filed BEFORE BURIAL, and it allows for a 3 day grace period. Actually, the Hospital should not release the body without the death certificate completed and signed, and the body should not be buried until the death certificate is filed. The website also says "The family may dig the grave themselves if on their own land." HOLD ON!!! This varies by county. MOST CITIES DO NOT ALLOW BURIAL ON RESIDENTIAL PROPERTIES! For the most part, it is allowed on the countryside, and only if you have such and such amount of land, and so far from this water line, and the grave must be such and such depth, so far from this neighbor’s property, unless with written permission. THE COUNTY ZONING MUST BE LOOKED INTO. Please do not misunderstand me. I mean no disrespect. I am all for families being involved in their loved ones’ funerals, but there are reasons Funeral Directors are needed. Pathogens spread of disease, not knowing the law, are all reasons why the funeral business is regulated. Have we even talked about burial transit permits? Do you even know what one is and when it is needed? I am a Funeral Professional and Muslim, and if anyone wants information on how to properly conduct a home funeral service, I will do my best to help, and have done so to help people do this in the past, but PLEASE DO NOT TAKE THINGS INTO YOUR OWN HANDS WITOUT FULLY UNDERSTANDING THE LAWS.

It is possible to care for your own dead, but in most cases, people are going to need help.

- your death care expert, Rose.

Anonymous said...

One of your readers referred to the blog for Undertaken With Love: A Home Funeral Guide for Congregations and Communities. FYI, this not-for-profit educational project has new URLs for its main website and blog.

The new main website is:

The new blog URL is:


Muslim Funeral Director said...

Muslim Funeral Home in Northern Virginia.

Janazah Services Available.


Miriam Rose AbdRahmaan.

Holly Stevens said...

About embalming and the public health:

This is a myth that persists, despite the effort of numerous public health agencies to counter it over the past several decades! Unfortunately, some mortuary schools continue to advance the notion that without embalming, those who touch the body may become infected with pathogens that cause illness, and some funeral homes may place pressure on families to permit embalming accordingly.

The bacteria that promote decay are not the same bacteria that cause infection. According to the Pan American Health Organization:

"The microorganisms that are involved in decomposition are not the kind that cause disease….
And most viruses and bacteria that do cause disease cannot survive more than a few hours in a
dead body. An apparent exception is the human immunodeficiency virus, HIV, which has been
shown to live up to 16 days in a corpse under refrigeration."

However, the simple safeguards that were taken while the person was living suffice after the person has died. This is true of HIV. Though it is a rare disease that most funeral providers will never encounter, Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease, an invariably fatal brain disease, is sometimes cited by morticians as an example of a disease that can infect survivors. The illness can be confirmed only by autopsy, so fluids oozing from the autopsy incisions are indeed a concern. But the World Health Organization offers guidelines involving common sense and simple procedures even for this condition that still allow for open casket viewings without embalming.

Neither do dead bodies cause epidemics—that’s a related myth, according to the Pan
American Health Organization among others. Says Jean-Luc Poncelot, chief of the Pan American Health Organization’s emergency preparedness and disaster relief program:

The notion that dead bodies pose an urgent health threat in the aftermath of a disaster is one of several enduring myths about disasters and relief efforts that the Pan American Health
Organization (PAHO) and the World Health Organization (WHO) have been trying to counter for nearly two decades. In 1986, PAHO produced a video titled "Myths and Realities of Natural Disasters" that debunked some of the most common misconceptions and explained how they exacerbate problems following a disaster. Yet 19 years later, many of these myths persist. Perhaps
the most enduring and consequential of these myths is the idea that dead bodies cause epidemics. Survivors are much more likely to be a source of disease outbreaks."

Conversely, embalming itself poses a public health risk to the mortician due to the carcinogenic chemicals used, principally formaldehyde. Studies have pointed to higher rates of certain cancers among embalmers, especially leukemia, because of their frequent exposure to the chemicals involved.

For commentary on this issue from a funeral director's source, see:

Holly Stevens said...
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Holly Stevens said...
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Holly Stevens said...

I accidentally posted my comment several times, hence the deletions....

Holly Stevens said...

As of June 2010, in response to the discovery of corpses left out of refrigeration to rot and leak in a back room of National Funeral Home in Falls Church, the Virginia Legislature passed a law requiring funeral homes to refrigerate or embalm bodies if more than 48 hours passes after death and before disposition. Importantly, the law bars funeral homes from embalming without the express permission of the family. This means funeral homes now must offer refrigeration as a standard alternative to embalming, and won't be able to force families to "choose" embalming in order to comply with the 48-hour rule (which unfortunately occurs in many states).

Holly Stevens said...

As to outer burial containers (vaults and grave liners) being required by law, there is no state law as such. However, most for-profit and municipal cemeteries presently require them because they prevent the plot from sinking as the remains decay and allow for heavy equipment to pass over. Hence, some municipality ordinances require OBCs in city-owned cemeteries, even though it is a myth that state laws require them.

As consumers, especially baby boomers, look for more natural dust-to-dust burial options, more for-profit (and some municipal) cemeteries are rethinking this policy and offering natural burial sections that do not permit vaults and grave liners, while some new cemeteries operate solely on such "green" principles. Many church cemeteries are flexible on this matter, allowing for burial without vaults or grave liners. And in some municipal cemeteries, while a grave liner may be required, a person may still receive a shroud burial without casket. (This permits the cheek to touch the soil, as is traditional in Muslim burials.)

The Muslim and Orthodox Jew practices of using shrouds rather than caskets limits the amount of soil displaced and hence sinking. Though these burial practices are a matter of religion to these groups, there are a growing number of individuals who also want more natural burial options as a matter of aesthetic or ethical values. You don't have to be a Muslim or an Orthodox Jew to find options for natural burial.

Holly Stevens said...

Finally, for Muslim readers, to learn more about Muslim burial practices, you may want to visit the Islamic Burial Society of North America's website, Janazah Online, at

Though I'm Christian, I've gotten to know some of these folks. Because Muslim and Orthodox Jewish burial practices are similar, the two groups -- so often at odds -- have similar needs when it comes to interacting with the traditional funeral industry. Friendships have formed between them as they've cooperated to removing some of the obstacles to practicing their customs. Who would have thought that death care would be the stimulus to friendships between Muslim and Jew?