What a visit to my local mosque taught me about Muslim funeral rituals.

It wasn’t what I was expected when I arrived at my local mosque. Beside the entrance to the mosque was what looked like a mortuary. A regular visitor to funeral homes and mortuaries, it wasn’t a new sight for me. But what was a mortuary doing at a mosque?

The cleansing room at the Oxley Mosque.

During an open day at my local mosque yesterday (30 March), hundreds of visitors were shown all aspects of the mosque and had all their questions about Islam answered. Yes, we were even shown what I thought was a mortuary. It was described to me as “the cleansing room”. I’ve since learned it’s proper name is the Ghusl room.

When a Muslim dies, his or her own community is responsible for the funeral process. It is their duty. Cremation isn’t allowed in Islam. And time is of the essence as Muslims are buried as soon as possible after death, preferably within 24 hours.

The process involves three steps: washing and shrouding the body (Ghusl and Kaffan), the Funeral prayer (Janazah Salah), and the burial itself (Al Daffan).

Washing of the body takes place on a stainless steel table of sorts. Not all mosques have a ‘cleansing room’, but many do.

Just as the living cleanse themselves physically before entering a mosque to pray (washing their extremities, their face, their mouth), the cleansing ritual of the deceased (called Janaza) is an intrinsic part of Islamic tradition.

Ghusl procedure

Only people who are adult Muslims can wash the deceased. And it’s stipulated that they must be an honest and trustworthy person. The person doing the washing must be of the same gender as the deceased. For a child, either men or women can carry out the Ghusl.

The washing ritual has many components but I’ll just stick to the basics here.

The washer cleans the body with water and soap, starting with the head (hair, face and beard in men), then the upper right side of the body and then the left side. After that, the lower right side is washed before washing the lower left.

The hair of a deceased woman is washed and braided in three braids and placed behind her back.

The washing of the body is done at least three times. If needed, more washes are carried out in odd numbers eg. five, seven. The final wash uses camphor or perfumed water.

The body is then towel dried and the shrouding begins.

The Kaffan (shrouding)

The deceased is then wrapped in several sheets of material (three for males, five for females), most often cotton. Just like the washing process contains ritual, so does the process of shrouding. Each of the sheets has a special name and use.

Once the bodies have been wrapped, the sheets are then tied with pieces of cloth or rope. There’s one tied above the head, one under the feet and two after the body.

The Funeral Prayer

As a non-Muslim I’m not even going to pretend I know enough about Salatul Janazah to write about it. All I know is that the deceased is prayed for after the body has been washed and shrouded. No praying takes place during cleansing process itself.

The body or bodies are placed in front of the person leading the prayer.

It’s preferable that this is done outside the Mosque or the Musallah (prayer room). The prayer is said silently by the congregation and there are certain times of the day that the prayer should not be said (eg. from sunrise until the sun is fully risen).

Muslims aren’t buried in coffins

So why are there coffins in the Ghusl room?

In Australia, all bodies are required to enter cemetery grounds in a coffin of sorts. A body in a coffin is also easier to handle and transport than just a shrouded body. So the coffins I saw have been re-used countless times to take the deceased to a cemetery where the body is then removed from the casket for burial.

Burial.

This is where things get hands on. The body is put into the grave by the deceased’s male relatives.

According to Queensland’s Muslim Funeral Services the body should enter the grave from the direction of where the feet will be (ie. from the rear of the grave). And the body should rest on its right hand side (supported by sand, for example) so the deceased’s face will face towards Mecca in Saudi Arabia (technically it faces the Qiblah – the direction of the sacred shrine of the Ka’bah in Mecca). Once in the grave, the ties or ropes around the head and feet can be untied.

The body is then covered with wood or big stones so that soil will not be directly put onto the body when the grave is filled in.

In the photo below you’ll note the ladder and the aluminium grave boards that are placed around a freshly dug grave to provide a safe and secure foundation for graveside services. I took this photo in the new Muslim section in Brisbane’s Mt Gravatt Cemetery. The ladder is obviously used to get the men out of the 1.7 metre grave after they’ve laid their relative in the grave.

According to Islamic teachings, Muslim graves are not to be extravagant. It is permissible to put up a small headstone of sign on the grave to identify it.

While Christian graves often point east to west, Muslim graves run north to south to allow the deceased to face Qiblah – the direction of the Kaaba (the sacred building at Mecca).

Muslim graves running north to south in the foreground, Christian graves facing east in the background. Mt Gravatt cemetery, Brisbane.
One of two Muslim sections in the Mt Gravatt Cemetery in Brisbane.

A WORD OF THANKS

I’d like to thank those who welcomed me so enthusiastically to the Oxley Mosque yesterday and answered my questions. Two weeks ago, the day after the Christchurch shootings, I had laid flowers at this same mosque. Subsequently the mosque opened its doors to the community as a way of saying thank you for its support during such a terrible time, and to teach people about Islam.

Just like death, the more we learn about it, the more accepting of it we become.


ABOUT THE BLOGGER: Lisa Herbert is a cemetery wanderer, journalist and author of The Bottom Drawer Book: an after death action plan, an informative and amusing workbook and funeral planning guide for those who want to prepare for the inevitable. The second edition is available in Australia for $24.95, including postage. (Overseas orders will incur an additional AU$8 postage.) Lisa enjoys telling the stories of the dead because they reveal so much of our history and way of life.

Author and journalist Lisa Herbert wants to make death and dying less confronting for all.