Monday, June 6, 2011

Muslims and Green Burials

I recently read some articles about green burials. These articles discussed a rising trend in people choosing to be buried in a way that doesn't add inorganic materials (embalming chemicals and metals from clothing and the casket) to the earth. Green burials are meant to return the body to the earth in as natural a state as possible. I know that sounds treehugger-ish and New Agey, but isn't that what is meant to happen when we die? Isn't it "Ashes to ashes, dust to dust," not "Unable to decompose due to chemicals"?

Having been raised Muslim, I have always been a bit horrified with "Western" burial practices. It seems wrong to have complete strangers handling the body of the deceased and to have them pumped full of chemicals and placed in an incredibly expensive box whose sole purpose is to rot in the ground.

I'll provide some perspective. My maternal grandmother passed away a few years ago. She lived with my family, so I spent most of my life with her in the house. I was devastated when she passed. She died early in the morning at home, with my aunt at her bedside. The funeral took place the day that she died, as per her wishes, and only female family members handled her body. No stranger touched her. Her body was handled with love and respect by people who cared for her. Her daughters and several of her granddaughters washed her body, which was always covered with a cloth, and wrapped her in a plain white cotton shroud. She was then placed in a simple pine coffin that had wooden pegs to hold it shut. (In Guyana, they don't use the coffin. The body is placed directly in the ground. I believe we were required to use a coffin here.) There were no chemicals involved. We used only water and camphor to bathe her.

I was surprised to find that doing this wasn't as hard as I thought it would be. There were no tears while we prepared her. We spoke to her and let her know we loved her and were abiding by her final requests by laying her to rest as her religion dictated. It was like saying a final goodbye. After a short religious ceremony, she was buried in a Muslim burial ground before the sun set.

As I understand it, "Western" burials involve embalmers, funeral homes, and expensive coffins. I couldn't fathom having my loved ones handled by complete strangers in death. I wouldn't want that for me. When my paternal grandmother passed away in January, I had to explain to the nurse (who was removing the covers from my grandmother) that we do not expose the deceased's body out of respect. She was very accommodating, but I was surprised that this wasn't the norm.

Even if my family wasn't Muslim, I would still want to have a green burial. Am I alone in this? Has my upbringing caused me to think like this? I'm curious.


  1. hmmm.your post makes me think some on the subject

    other religions do have rules regarding burial, especially when it comes to what is respectful of the the body.

    I'm guessing that if it were a man that has passed, then only the men bathe/handle the body?

    i think the purpose ( and i could be wrong) of the embalming fluid is to preserve the body until the family is able to gather. how is it handled for Muslims that live far away? do you bury the body and have a funeral later, or does the family just say their goodbyes at the grave site, post burial? are there any circumstances where the body is not buried same/next day?

    I never thought much about a green funeral, although it does make sense to some degree. The body does eventually decompose, but i dont think the coffin does. youre right, the expense of a western funeral is way out of line. i believe Jewish ceremonies have the simple pine box, and that does seem what it should be. And in olden times, people would have the funeral in the home, not at a funeral home. I'm not sure when that changed, but peoples ideas of death have changed over time. In the olden days, poeple would also take pictures of the deceased (some poepl may still do so).

    but even still, i dont think i would be able to handle the preparation of the body of a loved one for burial. emotionally

    Ok, i'm rambling now. sorry if this was a little hard to follow. i was just typing as the thoughts came to me

  2. Hi DeeDee!
    To answer your questions:
    Yes, men handle the preparation of men.
    If someone is unable to attend the funeral the day (or up to 3 days after, the usual timeframe for burials), they have to miss it. We do hold something my family refers to as the 40 Day where the family gathers again in the person's honor 40 days after they pass away. I used to know the significance, but I'm not comfortable expanding on it since I'm not sure.