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Tuesday 25th of April 2017

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Strangers at the Funeral

There are many landmarks and barriers to get over for the families, who have within them, one or more members who have accepted Islam as their new found way of life. First there is the initial shock and, for a great many, the long and seemingly painful coming to terms with their entering a world almost totally unknown to the rest of the family.

Together you may feel your way through the changes in diet, dress, behaviour, the seemingly endless do's and don'ts, coping with Christmas, family get togethers, the arrival of grandchildren who are now being brought up in a faith different to one's own - the list is endless! However with patience and mutual understanding, God Willing, most families come to some kind of re-working of their relationship.

Despite the odd story of banishment and rejection the ties of love and family are usually strong enough, Thank God, to withstand the changing pattern conversion to Islam can bring. However it is true to say that emotions can become frayed and even raw when it comes to dealing with the various rites of passage which of course are ongoing for all of us.

The event of death is one of those incidents. When a parent or relative of a Muslim convert passes on questions about participation in the funeral arise and it has often occurred that, due to misinformation, converts to Islam have not attended this important family occasion only to find out later that there would have been no harm in doing so. Attending to the burial of a deceased relative has as much to do with care, concern and participation by the right of blood relationship in the disposing of the body and the general protection of the entire community through that required action, as it has to do with individual faith. Our concern and responsibility therefore should be the same when it comes to the generally accepted method in the laying to rest of the remains of any human being, regardless of the deceased’s faith or culture. It is only in participation in the purely religious aspects of this service we are, as Muslims, not allowed to contribute. However if those conducting the service wished, on account of a family member being of a different faith i.e. being a Muslim, to include a passage or reference from the Qur’an about death and the afterlife as a gesture of respect that should be welcomed and supported. 

 It is always difficult to accept that a parent’s preference may be cremation, particularly when Islam calls for burial. The funeral rites may be performed with the rest of the family quite content with this and there is little that can be said or done to change the situation, especially if it is stated in a will or the wish is clearly expressed to and confirmed by other family members.

Conversion to Islam has already placed us in a minority community in this country and into which we form an even smaller minority. As far as our families are concerned we have stepped out of the framework of norms and values familiar to them and to society at large and, by so doing, have diverted somewhat from what was expected of us which is something we have to accept as part of the informed choice made by each of us as individuals.

Looking at it from the other angle, can you imagine how difficult it must be for the family of a convert to Islam who passes away? What are they to do? How should they respond? How can they be involved in the process of preparing the body of the deceased Muslim relative for burial according to Islamic requirements?

A Muslim sister I know died last year. Being still quite young she left behind her parents, brothers and sisters. They had found it very difficult to come to terms with her conversion to Islam and had not really had a chance to discuss things in depth or arrive at a happy state of acceptance before she passed away.

While the family would have understood the handling of the funeral arrangements to be partially their responsibility, in keeping with UK traditions, they had to accept, rather reluctantly, that it was their daughter’s husband who would take on the entirety of this responsibility and that she would be buried as a Muslim. This was a time perhaps, when her husband, though a Muslim himself, could have taken into consideration the emotional feelings and sense of responsibility felt by his wife's non Muslim family who are, after all is said and done, his relatives by marriage. Like it or not in these circumstances one has to try, as far as it is possible, to include them in the process of the burial. Perhaps the family wished to contribute financially towards the cost of the funeral, the coffin, the shroud, the burial plot or even towards refreshments for the mourners. This is something people of all faiths, cultures and backgrounds feel is a collective duty on them and what would have been the harm in contributing any of these things so long as the method of burial was according to Islamic rites?

Having the process of washing, janaza prayer and burial according to Islamic principles for the sister was comforting but it must have all seemed very alien to her grieving non-Muslim relatives. Added to the loss is the pain of feeling like a stranger at your daughter's funeral and the sense of alienation of standing in a corner of the mosque while rows of strangers pray over her coffin. It made us all more aware of the need to explain in detail the process of death and burial in Islam so that the family could feel more involved. It must have felt very strange to them that they were allowed no place and no role in the proceedings. Of course we can suggest that families may not be so accommodating when one chooses to embrace Islam but this is no time for settling old scores or ensuring the old cliché of ‘what goes around comes around’ is applied in proportion.

It is very clear that we have to prepare ourselves and our families for events such as this and make them feel part of the process. We need to explain exactly what is going to happen and what it all means. Given the ritual involved in religious services generally when it comes to funerals, the Muslim janaza may seem quite sparse by comparison especially if it is experienced in a vacuum of knowledge.

Because of our positive attitude to death and firm orientation to life after death our behaviour can sometimes come across as seemingly matter of fact to the untrained eye. We just say "Allahu Akbar" - 'God is Great' - a few times and "Inna lillahi wa inna illahi rajaoun" - 'From God we came and to Him is our return' - it is almost all over.

The scholars agree that the family can, and indeed should, become involved at various stages and especially if they are not Muslim. It is very possible that they may draw comfort from being present while the deceased is being washed and perfumed and wrapped in shrouds. It is highly recommended that one of the Muslims in attendance at this procedure should have the sole responsibility of explaining the procedure to any family members who wish to be present, who should be male if the deceased is male and female if the deceased is female, so that they can see and understand its significance.

It also provides the opportunity to explain how the person is being prepared for their rising on the Day of Judgement and that they go out of this world as they came into it wrapped only in a simple shroud. Nothing else is necessary as we leave this material world. Done with belief and sincerity this exercise of seeing a loved one taken care of in a sensitive and most God conscious of ways can be comforting and not only informs where information and understanding may be seriously lacking, but can also make a deep and lasting impression on a relative. The funeral Prayer should also be explained and any relatives who wish can be invited to take part.

We are encouraged in Islam not to delay in taking the body to be buried which, in some Muslim countries, translates to the body being transported at a slow trot to quite a fast jog to the grave. However it is part of Urf, custom, here in the UK to move towards the graveyard rather more slowly and with dignity. It is important that non Muslim relatives, both male and female, who wish to attend the graveside, should be given the time to arrive rather than finding everything almost concluded on reaching the graveside. Place should be made for them at the graveside so that they too can hear and participate in any prayers or Qur'an reading recited at this time. Irrespective of cultural or traditional practices* it is highly likely that Muslim women who were friends of the deceased and wish to accompany non-Muslim female relatives to the graveyard both out of respect and to explain further anything to do with the burial will also attend the graveyard. There is no reason why this need should not be accommodated in a discreet, respectful and organised fashion. Here in the UK grief is generally expressed in a very controlled and dignified manner and it is highly unlikely that anything, other than weeping in the most modest of manners, will occur.

Seeing such huge numbers of people turn out for a funeral when, for a non-Muslim family attendance usually comprises of very close friends and family only, can be quite alarming but will make sense when the concept of death is put into perspective for the relatives and what it means in terms of responsibility to the Muslim community to attend to the last rites and final journey of a brother or sister Muslim.

The seamless transition from life to death to waiting for Akhirah is marked by each stage of the funeral rites in Islam. We are left with no ambiguity about it's certainty, of Life after Death the events of the Last Day since it is as much a part of our living as is also our total trust in the decision of Allah to mark out that life as He wills from a day to as many years. Comfort from this understanding helps and strengthens us all in living with the death of a loved one. It is a time when sensitivity and understanding towards relatives is of the ultimate importance.

It is often due to a lack of knowledge about the procedures relating to death and burial in Islam that leaves even us Muslims unsure of what to do. This uncertainty is also due to dictates which are often based on culture and tradition rather than correct Islamic principles. For us as converts to Islam it is not enough that we equip ourselves with the correct Islamic knowledge therefore but also the knowledge of how Muslims should respond to people of other faiths in areas such as this and other important events which concern us all.

May Allah guide us all towards what is right and good, Bless and protect us and keep us all forever in His Shade, Ameen.

* There is nothing in the Islamic sources which prevents Muslim women from attending the funeral, including the funeral prayer and burial in a cemetery, of a deceased person.