With the coronavirus (COVID-19) global death toll reaching high death tolls, the Muslim community has found itself in a dilemma over the Janaza (funeral rights) to be performed on those who have passed away during this time.
Janaza includes bathing the body of the deceased, shrouding them with white cloth as they are not to be buried in their casual clothing, praying Janaza prayer and eventual burial within 24 hours of passing. However, the amount of deaths per day and safety measures to take into consideration have made this ritual difficult to carry out and many Muslims around the world have voiced out their concerns.
Countries like the U.S., who have a record number of most deaths reported daily due to COVID-19, have been given strict guidelines to adhere to with regards to the funeral, including minimal contact with the deceased and limitation for members in a gathering. Families of the deceased have been urged to speak with their community religious leaders concerning alteration to rituals.
While this is a breath of relief for the U.S. Muslim community, certain countries are not given as much freedom to practice this ceremony. For instance, in Sri Lanka, those who have died from COVID-19 are subjected to cremation instead of burial despite the World Health Organization (WHO) releasing a statement that includes guidelines stating burial as a possible means of disposal. The government of Sri Lanka has released a gazette containing guidelines of their own, which state that those who have passed on due to the virus are to be cremated, regardless of religious beliefs. This has upset the Muslim community due to the blatant rigidity with which they have treated their own people and the lack of scientific back-up to their claims. While several community and religious leaders have formed petitions against the violation of rights, it goes to show that not all parts of the world are able to implement the same rituals.
Several fatwas have been issued by various Islamic councils around the world with regards to Janaza during a pandemic as loved ones of those who have passed on have had a difficult time coping with not only the passing but also the guilt of not having fulfilled their rights. Scholars who were asked have mentioned that the Fardh Kifaya (communal obligation) such as washing, shrouding, conducting the funeral prayer and burial can be implemented as long as no safety protocols are violated.
It’s recommended that washing is to be done by an individual wearing personal protective equipment (PPE) who would be willing to self-quarantine afterwards, to ward off any chances of infection. In the case of complications with regard to use of water, Tayammum (dry ablution) can be considered.
As for shrouding, most scholars believe that as the minimum requirement of shrouding is for the awrah (private parts) to be covered, if sealed bags are used, then shrouding can take place before sealing. If sealing has already taken place and cannot be undone, the body is to be shrouded over the bag.
Because those who have died as a result of a plague are considered martyrs in Islam, one view states that it is acceptable for the above rights to not be fulfilled, with regards to heavily infectious cases where both washing and shrouding are not recommended by health professionals.
Due to inability to perform congregational prayers, it is considered valid even if the funeral prayer is performed by a single person away from the graveyard. With regards to broadcasting of the funeral for loved ones who may not be able to attend, it’s allowed as long as decorum in the face of a funeral is retained.
Burial is a way of honoring the dead. Burial in an enclosed box or a body bag is considered acceptable as it is better for the community as a whole. Cremation, however, is where Islam draws the line: it is forbidden for a Muslim to be cremated as it is considered a form of mutilation. However, in the case of the government forcing cremation on the community, the bereaved family is to be assured that they are not sinful, nor is this to be considered a sin on the part of the deceased as our lives have been planned by the Best of Planners. Being patient in times of oppression is considered better for you than to be distraught by the fate presented to you.
The Janaza is followed by a period of mourning where condolences are to be given to the grieving family. Limitations on social gathering and non-essential visits to homes should not restrict you from reaching out, especially not when we live in a time of digital closeness. Give the family a call or drop them a text: let them know that you are thinking of them during these trying times and if possible, extend a helping hand to them. Remember the deceased in your duaas and pray for those who are suffering in silence in the midst of this pandemic.