Muslim Funeral Rights – Key Things to Know
For Muslims, the funeral is an important moment bringing the community together and preparing people for their journey from one life to the next.
As with most faiths, the end of life is an incredibly important moment in Islam. For Muslims death – just as life – happens according to the will of Allah. The timing of our deaths will have been predetermined with everything coming before being a proving ground. How we leave this world, and how our lives are celebrated, therefore, will be incredibly important.
Preparing for end
Muslim funeral rites begin with the preparation for death. As someone enters their final days, the entire family will be there to support them through what they see as the final ‘death struggle’. People will gather around providing what support they can, chanting and encouraging the dying person to repeat the word Shahada (Allah is the only God). The hope is that they can be chanting this at the very moment of their death.
Once a person has died their eyes and mouth will be closed. Sometimes the family will follow a tradition of lying the body so it faces Mecca, or with a copy of the Quran under one hand. However, opinion varies within the community. Some believe there is no precedent for this, so it tends to depend on the family’s wishes.
Cleansing the body follows strict rules. It is commonly done by the adult members of the immediate family, who are the same gender. The body will be cleansed at least three times, with heated water, in the following order: upper right, upper left, lower right, lower left sides. If the body is still not clean after three washes, it can be washed more, but ultimately it should always be washed an odd number of times.
Once cleansed, the body is wrapped in a shroud and prepared for the funeral. For men, just three white sheets and ropes are needed with the man’s hands placed on his chest. For women, the body will be dressed in loose fitting dress, loin cloth and a head veil. Once done, she should be shrouded in the same way as men.
Tradition suggests the funeral should take place as soon as possible – ideally within the next 24 hours. It’s a big community affair with even people who did not know the deceased invited.
The ceremony starts with the funeral prayer. As soon as the body has been shrouded, mourners will pray over the body. Mourners will come together and silently pray for Allah to have mercy on this person. Prayers normally take place at sunset unless there is a fear of the body decomposing, and it needs to be done straight away.
When it’s time for the funeral, everyone will sit in their assigned positions. Men will be at the front, followed by children and women at the back. Attendees will sort themselves into three horizontal lines facing mecca.
Funerals usually take place outside the mosque if possible and people stand throughout the entire service. Attire is often white to signify wholesomeness although dark and drab colours are also appropriate for the somberness of the occasion.
Clothing for men should not be tight fitting and cover everything from the ankles to the neck. Women should also be dressed modestly in dress, which covers everything except their face and hands. Non-Muslims can attend but would be encouraged to dress conservatively to match the occasion – no bright colours.
Prayers usually run in the following order. First, they recite the opening section of the Quran, the Fatilah in which they ask for Allah’s mercy and guidance. This is followed by four further prayers starting with Tahahood to the prophet Muhammad and three personal prayers. When the funeral is for a child, the final prayer will often be for the parents.
Thanks to rules requiring funerals to happen as quickly as possible, the deceased is usually buried where they died. That means if you’re unlucky enough to die abroad, your body will usually be buried in that country rather than being brought home.
Legally a body must be embalmed before being transported, but this is forbidden under Islamic rule.
Once the funeral rites are finished, it’s time to head for burial. As with anything strict rules govern the transportation of the body, but there are some concessions for the modern world. For example, tradition dictates that the body should be carried from the mosque to the burial place on foot, but these days it can also be carried in a hearse. The procession will proceed silently with no singing, crying, or any other readings.
The grave should be in a Muslim ceremony with no women or children allowed at the site. In most cases, the body should be buried without a coffin lying on its right-hand side facing Mecca. The hole should be deep enough to contain any smell and prevent animals from disturbing it.
Once in the ground, Muslims believe they will stay here until the day of judgment. At that time, those who have been good will ascend to eternal paradise while those who have not will be heading to hell for an eternity of suffering.
Once buried, Islam allows for a mourning period of three days. During this time, the community will rally around the family offering comfort and support. Food plays an important role in this with friends and family often bringing little gifts. The thinking is that during a time of grief it helps if others can take care of basic daily tasks such as cooking for you.
Different sects tend to adopt different attitudes to gifts such as flowers. With Islam emphasising restraint and modesty, gifts are usually discouraged with relatives often making gifts to charity instead.