When Ahmad Hussein immigrated from his native Saudi Arabia, he brought not only his wife, his children and his parents. He also brought his Muslim faith and a rich collection of traditions that helped face death and make sense of it. Ahmad was 78 when he died of a heart attack. Before leaving his father's bedside, Ahmad's oldest son turned his father's head toward his right shoulder, symbolizing a turning to face Mecca. As Ahmad's two sons drove their mother, Haadiya home from the hospital just before dawn Tuesday morning, they began discussing what needed to happen in the next few hours. They first called Mr. Fadal, their mosque's "funeral leader" and then the funeral home.
Everyone was aware of how quickly activities needed to be planned. In Islam, the tradition favors quick burial-preferably before sundown on the day of the death. Within hours, two men from their mosque met Mr. Hussein's sons at the funeral home for the ghusl, the washing of his body. These men did their work quickly and reverently, washing Ahmad's body with water they brought with them and reciting prayers and scriptures from the Qur'an as they worked. By 11am, Ahmad's washed body was wrapped in a lightly perfumed kafan (shroud) and placed in the kind of simple wooden casket always chosen by the local Muslim community.
Meanwhile, the Husseins worked with Mr. Fadal and the director from the funeral home to gather details for the death certificate and make other funeral plans. The cemetery had to be called, relatives and friends had to be notified, and the necessary documents for the state and county had to be completed.
Together with the funeral directors, the Husseins decided against holding the burial service in the afternoon. Ahmad's brother lived across the country and simply would not be able to arrive in time. Instead, the family decided to hold the burial service on Wednesday morning, just 28 hours after Ahmad's death. Ahmad's sons and brothers from the mosque took turns sitting next to the casket until sundown.
On Wednesday morning, family members and close friends met at the funeral home an hour before the scheduled funeral and drove in procession to the mosque, driving past and pausing briefly at Ahmad's store. Though not exactly on the way, family members felt the extra stop was important. Ahmad's oldest son remarked, "That store provided for our family; it is important to honor that part of our father's life." Of course the store was closed for the day, but several nearby merchants and customers stepped out of their own establishments to pay their respects as the procession passed.
At the mosque, the Imam led the family and community in Salat al-Janazah, the funeral prayers. Following the mosque observance, the mourners processed a few miles away to the cemetery, for the simple burial service. While in some communities, the cemetery services would be carried out only by men from the community, both men and women accompanied Ahmad to the cemetery, where again, the Imam led a short and simple prayer service. Because of cemetery restrictions in Ahmad's community, he had to be buried in a casket. However, in some places, arrangements have been made by Islamic centers to follow more traditional custom and bury their dead without the use of a casket.
Ahmad's family and friends were met at their home with an array of foods prepared by women in the community. His sons, daughters, and sons-in-law stayed with their mother in the family home for a few days, receiving the condolence visits (ta'ziat) of brothers and sisters from the mosque as well as friends from other faith communities.
Haadiya Hussein observed a "widow's waiting period" called iddat, a period of four months and ten days. During that time, she did not venture from the house, and her daughters and daughters-in-law made certain she had adequate food in the home. Iddat is an ancient custom, though certainly not all contemporary adherents of Islam follow it. Meanwhile, Ahmad's sons visited his grave every week on Friday to honor their father's memory, pray for his forgiveness and recite verses from the Qur'an.
While the Hussein family observed many common customs, their story is by no means the only way death, grief and funerals are experienced. The following resources will be helpful in learning more about these customs.
- Islamic Society of North America Funeral Procedures
- Preparation of the Deceased and Janazah Prayers
- Halevi, L. (2007). Muhammad's Grave: Death Rites and the Making of Islamic Society. New York: Columbia University Press.
- Jonker, G. (1997). The Many Faces of Islam: Death, Dying and Disposal Between Orthodox Rule and Historical Convention. In C.M. Parkes, P. Laungani, & B. Young (Eds.),Death and Bereavement Across Cultures (pp. 147-165). London: Routledge.