Growing Muslim population fuels need for special cemeteries

The Garden of Eden Islamic Cemetery in Burnsville
MinnPost photo by Beth Hawkins
The Garden of Eden Islamic Cemetery in Burnsville

In the corner of the Garden of Eden Islamic Cemetery in Burnsville, a polished granite slab supports a pointed arch, a traditional element in Muslim architecture. The graves are laid out diagonally, not quite perpendicular to the rosy brown sculpture.

This allows the dead, all Muslims in this section of the cemetery, to face northeast, the straightest and shortest way to Mecca.

To the west, there’s a sharp drop-off as the bluff gives way to the Minnesota River valley below. To the east stretches the green expanse that’s still called Pleasantview, the name the whole cemetery was given upon its founding in the 1950s. In the old section, many of the graves are adorned with vivid, synthetic bouquets.

Funeral directors adapt to changing needs
Funeral directors have always worked to provide services in accordance with the religious and cultural dictates of the population. For many decades, that has meant accommodating not only Protestants, Catholics and Jews. In more recent decades, that has also meant serving the needs of such groups as the Hmong, Vietnamese, urban American Indians and others with distinct death rituals.

Among the most recent waves of arrivals have been Muslims. Data from the most recent census isn’t yet available, but between 1990 and 2006, the Muslim population in Minnesota grew from fewer than 5,000 to 150,000, by some estimates. Along with mosques, schools, Halal butcher shops and other culturally specific services, the new arrivals need funeral services.

In contrast to the traditional American funeral, Muslim burial rites are very simple. Many of the burial plots in the western half of the graveyard are unmarked. Some are identified by brass plates set flush to the ground.

Because people could walk on them, the markers can bear no mention of God or any words from the Quran, explained Brother Amin Abdel Kadir, one of the founders of a two-year-old mosque a few blocks away. Sacred words would be allowed on upright headstones, but such markers pose a maintenance headache most modern cemetery operators aren’t willing to take on.

When he looks at the markers, Kadir likes to ponder the years of birth and death. “Sometimes, we think, it is important for people to come here and look,” he said. “There are people buried here who are 2 or 3 years old and people who are over 100.”

To the Egyptian-born Kadir, the range of ages is a reminder that the number of years one has on earth is determined by Allah. “A Muslim has to work, to do good deeds,” he explained. “You have to prepare, your time is coming.”

A professor of accounting at Augsburg College, Kadir did not set out to become director of the Minnesota Islamic Cemetery Association, which owns and operates the Garden of Eden. But the death of his daughter in 1989 changed his plans.

Muslim cemeteries a growing need
The operators of the Bloomington cemetery where she was buried were very kind, but they knew little about funeral and burial customs in Islam, he recalled. Talking to others after her death, Kadir realized the experience was common among Minnesota Muslims. And yet, he said, “to start a cemetery from scratch is not easy.”

Opening a new cemetery may be difficult, but buying one turns out to be pretty easy — at least for anyone not looking to turn a profit. More than half of Minnesotans now elect cremation. But beyond that, as a cemetery fills, running it becomes mostly a matter of maintaining the site and the trust fund that’s supposed to pay for its upkeep.

In the early ’90s, he and some friends saw a TV news report about a cemetery in Roseville that had fallen into disrepair. It was more or less abandoned, and neighbors were agitating for the city to do something.

Kadir’s group asked Roseville if they could buy the unoccupied southern section. The city was happy to sell the graveyard, which had primarily served Lutherans, but leaders wanted the Muslim group to take over the whole thing.

There weren’t very many open plots, however, and as immigrants from Somalia and elsewhere joined Minnesota’s Muslim community, it was clear they would need a bigger cemetery. The association learned that Pleasantview was for sale, but the corporation that owned it would only sell it if the buyer took over another property as well.

In 2004, the Minnesota Islamic Cemetery Association bought them both and set up a for-profit corporation to run Evergreen in Mahtomedi and the non-Muslim portion of the Burnsville facility. Since 2006, when it handled its first funeral, the group has overseen about 60 burials per year.

Two years ago, Kadir and his associates in the Islamic Institute of Minnesota opened a mosque in an old Snyder Drug building a few blocks away in Burnsville. There’s space for prayer and classes and weddings and other community gatherings, as well as a special room where the ritual washing of the dead takes place.

Muslim funeral rituals
When someone dies, family members of the deceased call the association. Kadir and another member of the mosque take turns handling the calls. The first thing they do is contact mortician Jeff Anderson, who is on call to the association and works on contract. He picks up the body and brings it to one of three washing rooms, the one at the Burnsville mosque, or those in Colombia Heights and Maplewood.

A Muslim should be buried within hours, if possible. “We try to hasten the burial because it [hastens] the meeting of God, and the person does not have to wait,” explained Kadir.

As quickly as can be managed, the body is bathed either by family members or by volunteers. “There is no beautification,” said Kadir. “It’s as if they are taking a bath.”

Even though they must be licensed and inspected by the Minnesota Department of Health just like any other funeral preparation facility, the washing rooms are spare. A metal cart with a raised lip and a drain in one end is used to wash the body.

A simple sink carries the water away. More water pipes on one wall serve a state-mandated eye-flushing basin and emergency shower. There are no chemicals to be feared, however, because bodies are not embalmed.

Nor must washers fear germs; bathing is skipped if the deceased had a communicable disease. “In Islam, it is always the public’s interest,” said Kadir. “If it is going to hurt the living, we don’t do it.”

Next, the family shrouds the body in plain white cloth. Men are wrapped three times, women five.

Then for transport, the body is placed in a casket that is reused for each death. It sits in a storage room at the back of the mosque until it’s needed.

The deceased is moved into the prayer hall for prayers with family and friends and then taken to the cemetery, where, because of the need for haste, an open grave is always available. At the Garden of Eden, the deceased is placed directly on the soil at the unlined bottom.

It’s a common misconception that caskets are required by law, according to David Benke, manager of the mortuary sciences section of the Minnesota Department of Health. In fact, state law leaves the decision about what to require to individual cemeteries.

“I get a kick out of it when people ask for a green funeral,” characterized by biodegradable caskets and a lack of toxic embalming chemicals, Benke said. “Jewish and Muslim groups have been doing that for centuries.”

Virtually all cemeteries, though, require plots to be lined by vaults, which protect each grave as the next is being dug, and to keep the cemetery level.

But because Muslims are returned to the earth, the vaults at Garden of Eden have no bottom. The company that makes the custom vaults had to do some experimenting to come up with a design that works. When the cement liners simply had no bottom, their weight would push them into the earth, creating pits. Eventually, they came up with a narrow lip on two sides that prevents the sinking.

Because all of the bodies need to face Mecca once in the grave, they are positioned on their right sides — “symbolic in the sense of right and wrong,” Kadir explained.

Mourners then line up, and simple prayers are said. The service takes about five minutes.

“Most families like to fill the grave themselves,” said Kadir, adding that there’s a backhoe available in cases when they don’t. “Then they can use the mosque to receive condolences.”

Association works to accommodate special needs
Rarely, a family wants to wait for someone who needs to travel to Minnesota. In these cases, the association does everything it can to accommodate them.

Bodies can remain in the washing room with the air conditioning on high, or at another funeral home or morgue, for up to 72 hours, at which point decomposition starts. At that point, state law requires embalming.

Sometimes the association is called on to help prepare a body for transport overseas. The religious rituals are the same, but a special waterproof, airtight casket must be used.

Occasionally, a family — typically one that’s been in the United States for a while — wants a casket. The association accommodates them, too.

“We feel that the families go through a lot of grief already,” said Kadir. “We don’t want to add to it.”

Nor is the association interested in commercializing the ritual. Transport, washing and burial in the Garden of Eden costs about $4,700. That’s less than half the cost of a modern American funeral and scarcely enough to make a dent in the $73,000 annual cost of maintaining the cemetery.

“The thing that makes it run OK is we are not looking for profit,” said Kadir. “If whatever comes in covers the costs, that’s fine and dandy. If not, we try to cover the rest with donations and so on.”

In Islam, visiting a grave should help the visitor remember the Hereafter. “In the Quran, it says God made you and he puts you in the grave and then resurrects you when the time comes,” explained Kadir. “Visiting a graveyard can be a very good reminder of what you need to do, of what is a priority and what is not.”

Beth Hawkins writes about schools, criminal justice and other topics.

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