When Tom Belford’s mother died in May, her family was faced with the impossible task of limiting her funeral to 10 people. Belford, who is the owner and funeral director of John. A Gentleman Mortuaries and Crematory, recalled the difficult months leading up to his mother’s death.
“From March until May nobody was allowed in the building, and she was on the second floor. So we couldn’t go up to the window or anything,” he said.
The end of a life is a difficult time under any circumstances, but COVID-19 has made grieving even more difficult.
“COVID is taking people suddenly, and it’s affecting the families that have suffered, that go through a death at a time where maybe they shouldn’t,” Belford said.
Belford said in many cases families are losing people who are in their 50s and 60s due to complications from the virus.
“We’re here to help them make that first step back to a normal life after suffering a loss,” he said.
John. A Gentleman has seen a steady number of virus-related deaths since the beginning of the pandemic, from March or April through today. Though numbers in Omaha aren’t what New York City or cities in California are seeing, deaths have risen from this time last year, according to last responders such as Belford.
Though the increase in business has been a change, the way Belford and his staff handle virus-related deaths has stayed the same.
“We practice something called universal precautions. We treat everyone as if they had COVID.”
These precautions, which include personal protective equipment used for both funeral directors and the deceased they are working with, have kept Belford’s staff safe since the beginning of the pandemic.
“We don’t treat anybody differently because they had COVID,” he said.
While the practices in caring for the deceased haven’t changed, funeral services have changed, in some cases dramatically, due to the virus.
“The biggest changes we see in the services is the social distancing,” Belford said. “For a while, the services were limited.”
Many churches and chapels continue to limit the capacity of funerals for everyone’s safety. In response to this, John. A. Gentleman has broadened its focus to include videocasting of services for loved ones who are unable to make it to the service.
“Before this started, we had one or two cameras for filming services,” Belford said. “We have six or seven now.”
Recorded services are helpful to many family members, but one important aspect of support is still missing.
“The families,” Belford explained, “they can’t socialize and get the support from their friends. And that’s probably the biggest disappointment families will see. Our interactions are the same. The care we give them is the same. But the care they get from their friends is different.”
Limiting social contact in a time of grief also directly curtails the level of support families would normally receive at the funeral and beyond. John A. Gentleman had to pause its bereavement programs due to the virus, though they recently started back up.
Many families are postponing memorial services for their deceased loved ones until after the virus is under better control. In March and April, some families planned to postpone services until summertime. But then those were pushed back, too. Some families are now pushing memorial services to summer 2021.
“Everybody’s pushing things back,” Belford said. “Hopefully the shots will come in and everybody will get vaccinated.”
Fortunately, Belford and his staff are currently on a waitlist for vaccinations and hope to receive their first shots in the next couple of weeks. In the meantime, Belford is more careful to protect himself and his family from the virus than the average person.
“I wouldn’t say I’m freaked out, but I would say that I’m cautious.” Belford said. “I’m very cautious about where I go and what I do. I have a big bottle of sanitizer in my car.”
Being a funeral director is a tradition that has passed down for three generations in Belford’s family. While the virus has changed the way he conducts his services, one tradition that remains is the mortuary’s memorial plantings at Lauritzen Gardens, which Belford said is part of the service for every funeral. But even that has been altered slightly. The dedications are now posted online.
The coronavirus has rendered many aspects of life a moving target, and for last responders, more changes are likely to come. However, Tom Belford is prepared to continue to adapt to support families even as his own family mourns their loss. “No matter what happens to people, we’re here to help them,” he said.
No matter how sustainably you lived, modern funeral practices ensure that you make one last giant carbon footprint when you die. The biodegradable pine box of past generations is no longer an option. In most places, regulations require the use of toxic, persistent chemicals for embalming and burial; cremation produces as much CO2 as a flight from London to Rome. Until recently, natural burial choices were mostly limited to environmentally friendly uses for cremated ashes. Now there is a new option for a greener afterlife – natural organic reduction (NOR) – better known as composting.
If the idea of human composting brings to mind images of bug-filled waste piles behind a barn, or worse, scenes from a crime thriller, rest easy that natural organic reduction is a clean process. It is equally respectful of the deceased and the planet that sustained them in life. The chemistry of NOR is the same as all composting, and the proof of concept is agricultural (farms dispose of the bodies of large livestock through composting).
But NOR facilities compost human remains individually in hyperbaric oxygen chambers. These honeycomb-like cells (called “cradles”) control the temperature and oxygen level inside, slowly rotating a clean, efficient mixture of organic materials (including straw and wood chips) tested by the University of Washington. When composting is complete, the compost is screened to remove any nonorganic materials like dental fillings and pacemakers. The final result is indistinguishable from garden topsoil. Families can choose to collect the soil for their own use, but most choose to donate it. From funeral to garden, the entire process takes about six weeks.
Health and Safety
NOR composting takes place inside a controlled environment. So many of the problems that can be associated with composting – like odors or incomplete decomposition – are avoided. Under the authority of the Puget Sound Clean Air Agency, Recompose’s permit requires air filters and no visible emissions or detectable odors from the facility. Independent review by a third party is required every three months.
Washington state requires the resulting soil to receive third-party testing for pathogens like fecal coliform and salmonella. It must be tested for heavy metals like arsenic, lead, and mercury as well. The state also prohibits people with tuberculosis or prion infections from undergoing NOR.
Katrina Spade was a graduate student in architecture 10 years ago when she began researching funerary options and found no practical, ecological alternatives. She wrote her master’s thesis on composting as an urban form of natural burial. But she didn’t give up on the idea after graduation. Instead, she worked with Western Carolina University and the University of Washington to produce feasibility studies. Then she helped push to change laws in Washington state to permit NOR. ESSB 5001 took effect on May 1, 2020, in Washington state, making it the first state in the U.S. to allow composting of human remains. Finally, in December of 2020, the first bodies were “laid in” at Recompose, Spade’s composting facility located in the suburbs of Seattle.
Recompose in Washington state, with 10 composting vessels, remains the largest active operation. They are currently only accepting prepaid clients through their “Precompose” plan. Herland Forest, a nonprofit natural burial cemetery in the Cascade mountains, has extremely limited capacity, with only a single composting cradle in operation. A third facility, Return Home, plans to begin operation in the Seattle area in April 2021. All three companies can accept bodies from out-of-state. But the carbon impact of transportation may significantly reduce the environmental benefit of composting relative to cremation.
Even with only three options available in the U.S., NOR pricing varies a lot. Ranging from $3,000 to $5,500, the three companies each offer somewhat different services. Herland, with its solar-powered cradle, may be the most ecological. They also have the lowest prices, but they cannot provide funeral services. Recompose has the highest price, but provides an all-inclusive service. As with cremated ashes, families can choose to collect the resulting soil. For those who do not, Herland can use the soil to plant a tree in their permaculture forest; Return Home offers to donate soil to “regional park departments, land trusts and the like for ecosystem restoration,” and Recompose donates soil to the ecological restoration project at Bells Mountain near Vancouver, Washington.
This variability is typical of the funeral industry. In King County, where both Recompose and Return Home are located, a 2020 price survey found cremation prices ranged from $525 to $4,165 while burial prices ranged from $1,390 to $11,100.
In February of this year, California introduced legislation to legalize NOR. As they decide whether to pass it, California, and the rest of the country, will be watching Washington’s NOR facilities closely. With their success, NOR could be normalized as a standard death care option for environmentally minded families within a few years.
New Orleans’ famed jazz funerals a casualty of COVID-19
By: David Zurawik
As we reached the one year mark this month of life under COVID-19, there has been no shortage of articles about how the virus has changed us. One of the most striking and still underappreciated ways it has done so is in our thinking as a society about death.
Prior to the pandemic, we were not a people who thought a lot about dying. I believe one of the primary reasons for that is that our popular culture, at least when it came to television, has generally avoided it.
One of the primary reasons for that: The commercial networks believed death was bad for business. I know that because multiple network executives have told me so over the years as if it were a truth handed down from a mountaintop on stone tablets, even though no one could supply research supporting that claim.
Death and destruction caused by COVID-19 have changed that situation dramatically, and I believe we are better for it. Existentialism says an awareness of death leads to a fuller and more authentic life. But you don’t have to be an existentialist to appreciate the way thinking about death can at least lead to a more thoughtful and focused life, driven by the awareness that our time on earth is limited.
I have written these past 12 months about several death-oriented, life-enriching shows, ranging from the Netflix series After Life, starring Ricky Gervais as a middle-aged journalist whose wife dies young, to Elizabeth Is Missing, a PBS movie starring Glenda Jackson as a woman with early-stage Alzheimer’s disease trying to solve the disappearance of her only friend. Both rattled around in my brain long after the final credits played. And now comes a Frontline documentary, Death Is Our Business (PBS, tonight, 9 p.m.), which has had the same kind of effect on my psyche. Images from it danced through my dreams earlier this week and I have been thinking continually about some of its themes.
The documentary by filmmaker Jacqueline Olive (Always in Season) looks at the way in which COVID-19 has changed centuries-old Black funeral practices and rituals in New Orleans. That includes horse-and-carriage processions, jazz musicians and the second line of dancers. The power of the film is found in both the poetry of its imagery and the deep, cultural context and analysis it offers of the African-influenced rituals that have branded New Orleans internationally and provided its Black citizens with a wealth of tradition on which to draw at times of sorrow and loss.
The film opens with a series of images carefully edited to the words sounded in voice-over by New Orleans psychiatrist Dr. Denese Shervington.
“New Orleans is this very complex combination of suffering and joy,” Dr. Shervington says.
On the word “suffering,” the screen fills with stark images of workers in masks handing out bags of clothing and food. On “joy,” images of young musicians dancing in sync on the street as they play their drums overtake the screen.
“Katrina forced us to think a lot about what it means to heal,” Dr. Shervington continues. “I think we’re having a similar experience with COVID and this pandemic. How do individuals come back from extreme loss, loss of family members, loss of what was normal? How do you find your way back?”
Dr. Shervington’s words immediately contextualize this community’s response to COVID-19 within the history of Hurricane Katrina, an event of disproportionate suffering by Black citizens in New Orleans. She also introduces the notions of resilience and healing in asking how to rebound from events like that.
In the film, jazz trombonist Delfeayo Marsalis, a member of the famed musical family of New Orleans, offers a concrete way one of the funeral rituals of the city helps survivors come back from the loss of a loved one.
“The idea of the jazz funeral is actually to help the family,” he says in the film. “And the journey from the church to the burying ground is a process where you can not only reflect and think, but you have people who are there to support you.”
Olive says the jazz funeral has served multiple functions in Black life.
“One, it’s a way of transitioning the soul of the dead,” she says in an interview. “So, you have this sombre moment and then that turns into almost a street-festival celebration. That’s a way of cutting the body loose so it can transition to the other side.”
It also helps those left behind “to be able to deal with their grief collectively,” she says.
“They have people whose shoulders they can literally lean on,” she explains. “You see in the footage, folks hugging each other and supporting each other physically. But it also means people are sharing food and sharing space and stories about their loved ones.”
Marsalis felt the loss of that ritual at a personal level when his father Ellis, the patriarch of the family and an internationally celebrated jazz figure, died at the age of 85 last year as the pandemic worsened.
“He was buried April 4th,” Marsalis says in the film. “We had about 10 people there,” he adds, because of limits on how many mourners were allowed at a funeral at that time to stop spread of the virus.
It’s a much different look than prior to the pandemic.
“There would have been a second line and a jazz procession,” says Jasminne Navarre, director of client services for the D.W. Rhodes Funeral Home.
Louis Charbonnet III, CEO of Charbonnet, Labat-Glampion Funeral Home has similar sentiments: “We’re a jazz-funeral town, and it’s hard to tell people you can’t have a jazz funeral. But we have to.”
Even though the pandemic denied the Marsalis family the kind of grand New Orleans send-off residents wanted to give the pianist, there is a poignant moment in the film where Olive brilliantly creates a cinematic memorial for him.
She starts with the image and sound of Delfeayo Marsalis and two other musicians standing in a cemetery amid tombstones playing a slow, particularly mournful version of A Closer Walk With Thee. The music plays underneath the reciting of an excerpt of a poem written by Reynold Verret, president of Xavier University of Louisiana, in the wake of Marsalis’s death.
“Last night, Ellis Marsalis went away,” Verret says. “No second line. No coming home of acolytes, the many musician daughters and sons. None may return to ring the bell, to celebrate, to mourn. In solitude, we remember.”
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Olive brings the music, images and words together in a perfectly distilled cinematic brew that makes your heart ache at the loss of this musical giant’s life. This moment alone would make the film worth going out of the way to see.
“There would have been literally at least 15,000 people lined up for the Ellis Marsalis funeral,” Olive says.
The film goes well beyond memorializing Marsalis or any one New Orleans figure, though.
“When I finished filming, I really came to understand that this film is a memorial to all those folks who died during the pandemic in which their lives weren’t acknowledged in the way they often deserved,” Olive says.
Death Is Our Business is a tribute, too, to the power of the rich Black funeral traditions of New Orleans and the funeral directors who, like jazz musicians, have been improvising the last year to keep bits of music, dance and celebration into their services, as difficult as that has been in the face of COVID-19.
As a young and seemingly invincible college student, one presumably does not put much thought into their inevitable death. However, if you are eco-conscious, perhaps it is time to start planning ahead.
The need to preserve one’s lifeless beauty for just a little bit longer has grave consequences for the earth. When a person dies, it is common for their body to be pumped with an embalming fluid that contains a mixture of toxic chemicals in order to postpone their inevitable decomposition. They are then placed in a casket that is likely made up of inorganic hardwood, copper, bronze, and steel. Their toxic body encased in a casket of unsustainable materials will eventually be lowered into the ground in a concrete crypt.
Green burials are a sustainable alternative to this contemporary western burial method. They may also be called “natural burials,” and the process does not involve any inhibition of decomposition. Instead, the body in its natural state is placed into the soil so that it can be recycled into the earth and help to nourish the land, as most decomposing life does. The body is wrapped in a biodegradable shroud or casket and then buried shallow enough to decay in a way that is similar to composting.
Craig Benson, an environmental science and management lecturer, said that the funeral and cemetery industry already appears to be responding to increasing requests for green burials.
“I would like to see more conservation burial options like the Prairie Creek Conservation Cemetery near Gainesville, Florida,” Benson said. “This is where old restoration ecologists, like me, could make a last ditch effort– pun intended– at creating a contiguous savanna habitat and providing lots of underground munchies for the microfauna and microflora. Why have a feast at your funeral when you can be one!”
In the United States, cremation has recently become the most popular choice for those who pass away. While the ashes of our loved ones harbor sentimental value, this way of honoring the dead is unfortunately still harmful to the environment. Cremation leads to release of harmful toxins into the atmosphere, including carbon monoxide, fine soot, sulfur dioxide, heavy metals, and mercury emissions.
When asked about the environmental impact of cremation, Jennifer Kalt, the director of Humboldt Baykeeper, gave insight on the atmospheric consequences of the practice.
“I noticed that the Los Angeles Air Quality Board recently lifted the limits on cremations temporarily due to the number of COVID-19 deaths,” Kalt said. “I’ve read that cremation is a significant source of mercury pollution. Once it’s released into the atmosphere, it gets re-deposited by rain and fog. All that does make me wonder why people think cremation is a better option. My understanding of the green burial concept is that it prohibits embalming, but human bodies still have contaminants that we store up over lifetimes.”
There are a few local options for those who choose to give their body back to the earth. Cemeteries in Loleta, Fortuna, and Blue Lake all offer natural burial options. However, Blue Lake Cemetery is the only place that does not require the body to be contained in a concrete crypt.
Environmental conflict resolution lecturer Natalie Arroyo said that, in her personal opinion, green burials seem like a great end-of-life option for those who would like to practice sustainability even after they die. However, it is important to note that how humans deal with death is wholly intertwined with their cultural, religious, and personal values.
“I would say as a community member and lecturer who has read and heard a little bit about this, that green burials seem like an excellent alternative with environmental benefits,” Arroyo said. “But they may not fit with people’s religious and cultural values, and they may not suit every circumstance. For example, my own father died far away from home, and his body was cremated due to the low cost and need to transport the remains easily over a long distance.”
A great way to get under the skin of a living culture, especially a little-known one, is to learn about their thoughts, beliefs and rituals around death. Conversationsaboutreincarnation, reunions with departed spirits, and the manner in which they send-off their loved ones might surprise you and lead to fascinating discoveries.While most rituals are rooted in ancient philosophies, modernscience and technology is helpingto develop sustainable optionsthat can turn our lifeless barks into useful nuggets.
Whisperings of death are all around us. Statements of grief and love take form in flower bouquets and roadside memorials where a person might have lost their life in an instance. The names of loved ones are inscribed on park benches. They live on in academic scholarships,wings ofhospitals, places of worship and most of all, in our memories. Their photographs are hung in our homes, shops and offices.While these may be familiar to us, in far-flung lands, other practices are thriving.
Wandering the lanes of the Old Quarter inHanoi, Vietnam, my friend and I came upon Hang Ma street with shops selling things made from paper.The stallswere festooned with rather unique paper replicas of houses, cars, motorcycles, washing machines, refrigerators, clothes, cell-phones, shoes, wallets, eye-glasses and wads of cash. These, it turns out,are bought by relatives of the deceased and burned onWandering Soul’s Day. People believe that on this day the gates to the afterlife are opened for spirits to come back to the earth, and their ancestors can accept and enjoy the offerings. From their vantage point, death is by no meansa final departure and the next world bears a strong resemblance to the present one.
Driving through the countryside in Kyrgyzstan, the captivatinglybeautiful hills reared up all around me and my guide Kuban. We stopped to explore curious clusters that looked like giant birdcages. Kubanexplained that these airy domeshoused tombs. Influenced by Islam and nomadic traditions, the Kyrgyz have uniquely adapted their grave coverings to look like yurts, with viewsof the open skiesthat are close to their hearts.While the Soviet occupation saw many mosques razed to the ground, the graves were left alone, and they continue to tell the story of the people held deep within their wombs.
High up in the folds of the Himalayas, several Tibetan Vajrayana Buddhists still opt for sky burials. In accordance with their beliefs, after a person’s passing, while the spirit is in transition, the body is a mere empty vessel to be given back to nature. In an extreme act of compassion, the naked body,often chopped into pieces, is left out in the open as food forscavenging vultures and predators. When full, they sparesmall creatures such as the mice, marmots, weasels and hares.
The respected priests, the Lamas, encourage people to confront death openly, and to feel the impermanence of life. Many a ritual object in the monasteries is made from human bones. The harsh, treeless landscape has also had a role to play in eliciting this practice, with the lack of wood for pyres orcoffins and the earth being too hard to dig graves.
In Ladakhand the villages of the hinterland, if a baby dies before its teeth are cut, the dbon-po (astrologer) might recommend putting it in a small coffin and walling it up within the house to retain its g-yang, or good fortune and hoping its soul will re-enter the mother’s womb.
According to the ancient Zoroastrian faith, dead bodies must not defile the earth, water or air. Traditionally, they are cleansedin accordance with rituals and left in the ‘towers of silence’ to be consumed by vultures.The practice continues in a handful of places such as Yazd, Iran. In Mumbai and Hyderabad, the lack of vultures (many died from eating cow carcasses that contained the drug diclofenac) has made the community pivot to solar concentrators, where intense sunlight desiccates corpses as it passes through a fresnel lens.
In Longyearbyen, Svalbard, the northernmost town on the planet, it has been illegal to die since 1950. As the temperatures dip down to –43°C,there is constant permafrost in the ground. The archipelago belongs to Norwegians, who are mainly Christians, but they can’t bury their dead here, as the permafrost will preserve the bodies forever. Anyone expecting to die must fly to the mainland.
Over time, several polar explorers, whalers and scientists have lost their lives in Antarctica, where they might remain hidden forever, or make a macabre appearance as an iceberg calves and melts in the ocean.Similarly, as Everest melts, bodies of trekkers and Sherpaskeepemerging from the ice.
On a trek through Mantadia Rainforest in Madagascar, as we looked out for creatures such as lemurs, indris and sifakas, our guide Eric Michel chatted with us about life on the island, describing the famadihana or ‘turning of the bones’ tradition. “We (Malagasy) believe that our dead ancestors influence our fortunes and fertility from the afterlife. Every 5-7 years, when enough money has been saved, our family plans a famadihana where the entire village comes together. Alcohol is passed around freely, food is served, and the festivities start. Wemake an opening in the family tomb tolet out the bad smell, then begin pulling out one body after another. They’re re-wrapped in fresh fabric, even the crumbled ones. The band starts to play, people begin to dance, sing, and commune with the dead, rocking them, talking to them, filling them in on the latest news, introducing them to new family members, perhaps showing them a new bridge or house, and asking for specific blessings before placing them back. People are even more powerful once they die, so we must respect them.”
Also believing in an afterlife, the San Bushmen of the Kalahari Desert add bows and arrows, pots and fabrics tothe graves of their dead, whose bodies are anointed in ochre and fat and buried in foetal position, facing east. The spot is topped with a stone cairn to keep it from being dug up by any animals.
Death ritesare not always achingly solemn. In Barbados, a driver commemorates his grandmother, who passed four years ago, by hanging her smiling pictureonabadge on his rear-view mirror. In Ethiopia’s remote Omo Valley, the sudden loud gunshots turned out to be part of a funeral procession with a touch of gangsta-verve. Guns and bullets are a luxury, swapped with precious cows and goats, and so firing them is a way of lavishing honour on the departed. In Spanta, Romania, people believe that death leads to a better life, and so it must be celebrated. The notion is reflected in the Cimitriul Vesel, the ‘merry cemetery’, dense with colourful paintings on tombs illustrating the dead person’s life that are often topped with light-hearted epitaphs.
Our death is our swansong, and the manner in which we go also reflects who we are. The religiousrites that are handed down to us over generations have a consolatory feel, but many of these were established millennia ago, when there were far fewer humans, rivers were pure and thick forests covered our planet.Thesetraditions now need to be revisited. Our awareness of environmental issues has been heightened. Let’s look outside our windows today and think afresh. By 2050, there will be 10 billion humans. Does cutting down trees for pyres and coffins, putting masses of carbon in the air and choking our waters with ashes sound right?
Shedding our reticence and donating our bodies to science and allowing our organs as hearts, livers, eyes to be used by others upon our passing is modern-day compassion.Preserving, not depleting our planet is the new mantra. Fresh ideas abound. The US-based company Eternal Reefs compresses human remains into a sphere that is attached to a reef in the ocean providing habitat for sea life. Resomation is a technique where alkaline hydrolysis breaks down and liquifies the body with no carbon emission. Capsula Mundi, an Italian company, makes organic pods into which bodies are placed and put in the earth. Seeds or saplings are planted just above, and they becomenourishment for the growing tree. A simple version of this practice requires a spot, a sack and a sapling. If we can allocate land and turn our bodies into forests, it could be our most considerate legacy for future generations. A human and a tree growing into each other. What better consolation.
For many years, Muslim funeral rituals have attracted attention from Christian counterparts mainly because of their simplicity.
Yesterday, two high profile octogenarians, who played key roles in Kenyan politics and civil service, were laid to rest.
One, ex-minister Simeon Nyachae, a Christian of a Seventh Day Adventist (SDA) faith and Senator Yusuf Haji of the Muslim faith. The two funeral services sparked debate on social media with a section of Christians seeking answers on Muslim funeral rites.
Nyachae, who died on February 1 at the Nairobi Hospital aged 88, was laid to rest two weeks later at his Nyosia village in Kisii County. His remains had been preserved at the Lee Funeral Home for 14 days before being flown to Kisii on Sunday.
On the other hand, the late Garissa Senator, who died on Monday morning, was interred at the Lang’ata Muslim Cemetry, in Nairobi, miles away from home, less than 24 hours after his death. He was 80 years old.
The cost of giving a loved one a decent send off took centre stage on the social media debate, with many Kenyans agreeing that Muslim burials cost way less.
Mohammed Hersi, a hotelier and vocal commentator on social media, took to his Facebook page to explain what happens when a Muslim dies.
In Muslim, Hersi said, the burial of a loved one should take place as quickly as possible after death and preferably within 24 hours.
Where the cause of death is uncertain this may and should be determined prior to burial.
The person who has died is washed as quickly as possible after death and wrapped in a simple white shroud For men, up to three pieces of cloth may be used for this purpose, for women, five.
In many countries, a coffin is not used, but in the UK, where this is often forbidden, a coffin is permitted.
Hersi revealed that the Muslim rarely transport a body.
“You get buried where you passed away…For us your burial is where death (maut) will find you, ” he wrote.
The Muslim burials timings are mainly dictated by prayers times.
The Muslim community prays five times a day: Fajr at 5am, Dhuhur at 1pm, Asr 4pm, Maghrib 6.30pm and Isha 8pm.
“Most of the burial prayers would coincide with the 1pm or 4pm prayers for various reasons ranging eg to allow immediate family like children to arrive etc, ” he said.
“We try and avoid evening or nighttime burial unless it is a case of an accident and departed ought to be laid to rest as quickly as possible.”
Preparation of the body
The body is prepared either at home or even at some mosque.
Ghusl is the full-body ritual purification mandatory before the performance of ritual and janaza prayer.
The remains are wrapped in a simple plain cloth (the Kafan) which costs less than Sh500. After that, instead of a coffin, the deceased is transported to the mosque in a Janaza that is returned after use and reused by another family.
“Our mosque in South C does that very well and a few masjid in Mombasa, ” he added.
When a Muslim passes on in town, it becomes the responsibility of fellow muslims to give the departed brother or sister a decent burial.
The body is then carried away in a Janaza and is placed at the back of the mosque awaiting the normal prayers to happen.
Immediately after the normal prayers, an announcement is made informing worshippers of the presence of a body of a departed brother or sister and requested to join the family in burying their kin.
“It is considered a blessing to take part in such even if you were not known to the departed. We then bring the body to the front of the congregation, ” he added.
Before the body leaves for its final resting place, the family led by the eldest son and the Imam ask if there is anyone who owed the departed anything or if the departed owed anyone anything.
The son or immediately male family member are expected to take responsibility for the debt.
“We then all stand behind the Janaza and final prayers are led by the imam. Sometimes we have more than one body so they are all laid out in a line, ” he said.
The service takes less than 10 minutes and thereafter the body is picked by young men, who mostly are not even known to the deceased, and taken to the final resting place.
Once at the graveyard immediate family members preferably sons and brothers to the deceased will go inside the grave which is always ready.
The body is removed from the Janaza and placed inside a grave that has a mould of mud which acts as a pillow where the head of the deceased is placed. Additionally, the body faces the right side towards Mecca (the Muslim community faces Mecca when praying).
Wooden planks are used to enclose where the body is placed and if there is no wood, concrete slabs can be used.
Once done the family members step out, the grave is filled with soil.
Unlike in Christian funeral rituals, Muslims don’t observe protocols as everyone is considered equal regardless of their status.
“Once done a quick sermon is given hardly 5 to 10 minutes and we are done. We make no speeches and there are no protocols at the mosque or at the burial site based on your worldly position, ” he said.
“At the mosque and burial site we are all equal.”
In Muslim funeral rites, women are not allowed at the gravesite. If they attend, they can only watch from a distance.
Basil Eldadah assumed his father’s funeral would be simple. Years before, Basil’s father had taken steps to make the process easy on the family, purchasing plots and making arrangements. But in 2012, when his father died, Eldadah and his family discovered how complicated and impersonal the American funeral industry could be.
First, Eldadah learned that what his father had purchased was only the plot itself. Digging the grave, installing the concrete grave liner, and filling in the gravesite were not included. But the larger issue was that the cemetery required the use of a vault or burial liner: a concrete box that encases the coffin, keeping dirt from collapsing the casket. Eldadah’s family is Muslim, and it’s customary in Muslim traditions for a body to be placed directly in the soil. He described Muslim burial as “a process that reminds us of the humility of being from dust and returning to dust.” But most American cemeteries require concrete vaults or grave liners to prevent dirt settling at the gravesite—it makes the cemeteries easier to mow and eliminates the spooky depressions overtop graves—despite the fact that it is counter to the religious traditions of Muslims and some Jewish denominations. For Eldadah’s father, the best the family could do was to add some dirt to the inside of the vault.
>Later, as the grief began to lift, Eldadah questioned whether there was a more reverent, natural approach to burial. As an active member of his local Muslim community and as a researcher who studies aging, he knew that his experience wasn’t unique. “My father’s funeral really kind of planted the seed in my mind,” he told me. He eventually learned that there is a name for what he wanted: a green burial ground.
Green burial doesn’t have an official definition but generally refers to a range of cemetery practices that limit fossil fuel usage and the amount of human-made materials put into the ground. More broadly, the green burial movement wants to help people approach death with a more natural, and less commercial, outlook.
Green cemeteries substitute exotic hardwood caskets with renewable wood coffins or burial shrouds, and they don’t line graves with concrete. They shun mown lawns for native grasses and trees. Some green cemeteries mark graves with native stone or plant memorial trees; others don’t mark graves at all. They reject embalming as unnatural, unnecessary, and toxic. (Embalming chemicals contribute to high rates of cancer in mortuary workers.) Green cemeteries look more like nature preserves or parks than the orderly cemeteries we’re accustomed to.
The nonprofit Green Burial Council certifies cemeteries as green—it’s kind of like LEED building certification—and keeps tabs on the environmental impact of conventional burial. It says that each year American burials put more than 4 million gallons of embalming fluid, 20 million board feet of hardwood, 81,000 tons of metal, and 1.6 million tons of concrete into the ground. Cremation, promoted by the death care industry as the greener alternative, uses the equivalent of around 20 gallons of gasoline per cremation and vaporizes heavy metals (from dental fillings and surgical implants) into the atmosphere. While cremation conserves physical space, green burial conserves energy.
Burial wasn’t always so complicated. Embalming only gained traction among wealthy Americans during the Civil War, which essentially started the modern funeral industry. (Abraham Lincoln was embalmed for his funeral train, and reembalmed at many stops, but onlookers thought he looked nasty.) Concrete grave liners came later, allowing for today’s flat, uniform suburban cemeteries.
Generally speaking, laws governing burial are complicated and vague. In most states you can bury a loved one on your own property, but local zoning ordinances often contradict the state laws. While no states legally require embalming or grave liners, the funeral industry has made them so standard that in some places, they’re essentially requirements. Neither practice has any public health benefit, but embalming stretches the possible time between death and funeral. Embalming is popular only in the U.S. and Canada; in the rest of the world, it’s actually quite rare. Funeral homes have normalized embalming because it saves on refrigerator space and because they can sell larger funeral packages.
After his father’s funeral, Eldadah let his idea percolate until he found the right partner, one who’d also been surprised by the cost of a funeral. In 2019, Eldadah’s friend Haroon Mokhtarzada, a successful tech entrepreneur, received a call asking him to help fund the burial of a local community member. He was glad to help, but the cost rattled him.
“I was thinking it was going to be a couple hundred bucks and it was several thousand dollars,” he said. “And I came to learn that the average burial in Maryland is $10,500.” The national average, according to the National Funeral Directors Association, is about $9,000. (This chart shows how complicated itemized funeral expenses can be.) Mokhtarzada said, of the funeral’s cost, “There’s something that bothered me about that to my core.”
He asked, “Why does a hole in the ground cost $10,000?” The same use of embalming fluid, concrete, and hardwood that make death so polluting also make it expensive. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, funeral costs jumped 225 percent since 1986; GoFundMe hosted 125,000 memorial campaigns in 2020. Funeral poverty is an underreported crisis in America.
Eldadah had contacted Mokhtarzada previously about the project, but he was too busy to get involved. Seven years later, backed with his money and startup expertise, Mokhtarzada emailed Eldadah and said, “We’re going to make this thing happen.” Together, they set to work making metro D.C.’s first nonprofit green cemetery. If it works, it will be the most urban green cemetery in the U.S.
There are 82 cemeteries in America certified as green by the Green Burial Council (you can read about the certification standards here), but the movement has struggled to take hold near major cities due to the price of land. Pete McQuillin, who operates Penn Forest Natural Burial Ground near Pittsburgh, told me that it took him three years to find a property close to the city. In the nine years since Penn Forest opened, it has interred only 205 bodies. (Because people usually want to be buried next to their deceased loved ones, cemeteries are notoriously tough to get started.) But the number of burials is growing steadily every year, as does the execution of Penn Forest’s broader mission: It strives to be a multiuse park, hosting guided nature hikes, community roundtables on death, and a DIY coffin-making class.
Mokhtarzada and Eldadah have similar goals for their site, a woody, 40-acre plot in Silver Spring, Maryland, tucked between a concrete factory and a church. (The price? Almost $2 million.) When I first talked to them in July, they were excited to explain the project’s overarching goals. “We’ve started to envision a community-gathering place,” Mokhtarzada said. “Not just a creepy place where you only go to pay your respects and then you leave. But some place where people would want to spend quality time … a space where not only do the living serve the dead by providing simple, natural, and dignified burials, but also where the dead can fuel life.”
By December, they were feeling the weight of bureaucracy. In between fielding questions from their new neighbors about water quality and funeral traffic, the two men had poured $200,000 into the project before breaking ground. There were nonprofit lawyers, land-use lawyers, engineers, architects, permitting fees. And they were still struggling to come up with a name. Like burial, starting a cemetery was more complicated than anticipated.
While Mokhtarzada’s startup experience was helpful, he learned that the cemetery business is unique. “In a startup mode,” he said, “you just figure out as much as you need to figure out, you don’t figure out what this thing’s going to be in five and 10 years. But what I’ve found that was different in this creative process is we had to think decades into the future. We had to think in three dimensions in decades.”
To help with that part, Eldadah and Mokhtarzada hired architect Jack Goodnoe, who has designed some of America’s best-known green burial grounds. Goodnoe started designing conventional cemeteries in the 1980s and began working with green cemetery movement when the movement began in the late ’90s. While Goodnoe supports greening the death industry, he also thinks that green and conventional cemeteries need to learn from each other. The green burial movement has been led by charismatic industry outsiders—academics, environmentalists, spiritual types—with big ideas offset by a lack of knowledge about cemetery management. Goodnoe recommends that “when someone wants to start a green cemetery, they partner with a traditional cemetery that can bring all the legal, grief, record-keeping elements that they’ve learned from decades in the industry.”
Eldadah and Mokhtarzada don’t plan to work with a traditional cemetery, but they have implemented some conventional cemetery practices at Goodnoe’s recommendation. For example, some green cemeteries let people choose their own burial site anywhere on the property, which Goodnoe worries could lead to record-keeping issues for future cemetery managers. At their site, Eldadah and Mokhtarzada have taken Goodnoe’s advice of burying in one area at a time and evenly spacing gravesites like a conventional cemetery might.
They hope to open for burials in 2021 and have already generated some interest among the local Muslim community. But in order to fulfill their inclusive mission, Eldadah and Mokhtarzada will have to expand beyond green burial’s usual demographic. Hannah Rumble, an anthropologist who studies burial in the U.K., told me that green burial has been “quite a middle-class aesthetic and cultural practice,” and hasn’t yet become popular among the working-class people who could most benefit from lower burial prices (often less than half the price of conventional burial) and less upkeep responsibility. But traditions change slowly, she says, and as the last rite of passage, burial traditions are usually some of the last to change.
On a more spiritual level, Rumble has observed the way that green burial has influenced the grieving process of people she’s interviewed. She says, “The bereaved like to go over time to watch the trees grow, to watch the site developed to maturity, to watch the plants bed in. It’s interesting how their own emotional journey with grief has changed and how they see it reflected in the development of the natural burial ground. … And so now their visits are more about just going and enjoying the bird songs, seeing how the site’s developed, seeing what initiatives are going on. It becomes a kind of community, a community of practice.”
This sentiment is ultimately how the green burial movement overlaps their ecological and spiritual goals. Conventional cemeteries, with their permanent headstones and concrete grave liners, encourage us to think that even in death, we’ll last forever. What natural burial offers is the reminder that death and grief are like all natural processes: They change and evolve, grow and decay. Like Rumble says, “I think what’s really powerful about that ecological metaphor is it’s fairly timeless. And it’s one that, irrespective of your faith, people can relate to.”