NYC Muslims struggle to hold traditional burials

With bodies piling up at hospitals and morgues, and funeral homes turning families away due to a lack of capacity, New York City has been stretched to its limits by the COVID-19 pandemic.

The crisis has touched thousands of grieving families, virtually all of which have been forced to navigate chaos after their loved one’s death from the deadly respiratory virus.

A Muslim woman kneels for midday prayers in a nearly empty Times Square in Manhattan during the outbreak of the coronavirus disease (COVID-19) in New York City, New York [Mike Segar/Reuters]

The funeral process can be even more complicated for Muslim New Yorkers, who make up about three percent of the population across the city’s five boroughs, because a series of religious practices guides the burials.

“It’s overwhelming – just the amount of illness, the amount of deaths,” said Imam Khalid Latif, executive director of the Islamic Center at New York University (NYU), about the general feeling in the city.

He said that early on, it became clear that “funerals and things happening at end of life were likely really difficult for a lot of people” in the Muslim community.

“A lot of people [were] reaching out saying, ‘We just can’t connect to anybody, and the places we are connecting to, they’re telling us it’s going to be days before anything can actually happen’.”

Rising costs

Latif said families have also raised concerns about the cost of burials.

An Islamic funeral service in New York City would typically cost around $2,000, including a plot of land for burial, Latif said, but these days, some members of the Muslim community said they were being charged around $10,000.

“In Islam, the funeral rites are considered a communal obligation,” he told Al Jazeera. “Here, we have a responsibility to ensure that people who can’t afford it are still able to have it done.”

Latif helped set up an online fundraiser that collected nearly $195,000 this month to support Muslim Funeral Services of New York, a Brooklyn-based group also known as the Janazah Project.

The money will be dispensed to funeral homes to bolster their services – including the purchase of vehicles and refrigerated trucks to transport and store bodies when hospitals are over-capacity, and personal protective equipment for workers.

Latif said financial strain should not be a reason people do not get a chance to properly remember their loved ones, so needy families will also directly receive some of the money to cover funeral costs.

“To me, that’s a really unfortunate reason as to why someone who is already in a lot of emotional strife will have added anxiety that doesn’t allow for them to grieve,” he said.

Shifting practices

Financial concerns are especially prevalent among people employed in public-facing industries – such as taxi or Uber drivers, restaurant staff, or construction workers – who have taken a hit during the pandemic.

Muslim New Yorkers make up a high percentage of those workers in the city, said Ahmed Mohamed, litigation director at the Council on American-Islamic Relations New York chapter (CAIR-NY).

“Especially for immigrant communities, telework, work from home, is not a possibility. Having to be confined to your home means you don’t have a job and you don’t have a paycheque,” Mohamed said.


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