How Is a Muslim Funeral Service Different From Other Funeral Services?

A fellow caregiver asked...

How is a Muslim funeral service different from other funeral services?

Expert Answer

Barbara Repa, a senior editor, is an attorney, a journalist specializing in aging issues, and the author of Your Rights in the Workplace (Nolo), now in its 10th edition.

Although there are some variations due to regional interpretations and customs, Islamic funerals follow fairly specific rites that include washing and shrouding the body, funeral prayers, and burial.

Washing and shrouding the body. Upon death, a Muslim's body is handled and washed according to a specific ritual, or ghusl. The deceased's eyes are closed, lower jaw bound to the head, and the body covered with a white sheet. The washing, which ideally occurs within hours of death, is performed by same-sex members of the deceased's family -- the father, son, or brother of a deceased male; the mother, daughter, or sister of a deceased female. It's generally repeated three or five times -- always an odd number of repetitions. Neither the hair nor nails should be cut.

The washed body is anointed with camphor, sandalwood, or other perfumes. It's completely covered in a clean shroud, or kafan, which is usually white. Men's bodies are shrouded in three winding sheets. Women are shrouded in five garments: two winding sheets, a long sleeveless garment, waist wrapper, and head veil.

Embalming the body is prohibited, and autopsies are also forbidden unless required by law (for example, as part of a criminal investigation).

Prayers. The prayers for the dead, or Salatul Janazah, are traditionally held outside in an open courtyard or public square, although they may also be conducted in a mosque or funeral home. At the prayer service, collective prayers are offered to request pardons for the newly dead and for all deceased Muslims. All who participate must first perform an ablution, washing the parts of their bodies that are exposed to dust and dirt.

The traditional funeral prayers, led by the male who's most closely related to the deceased or by an imam or congregational leader, incorporate four takbirs -- the Arabic name for praising Allah -- followed by the salaam, or invocation of peace. In most traditions, only the leader will softly say the prayers aloud; the others attending pray silently. There's no bowing or prostrating, unlike in other Muslim prayer services; all participants stand while praying.

Burial. While the exact manner of burial varies, the guiding dictates are that it must be a ground burial, respectfully carried out, ideally in an open grave without a casket, as soon after death as possible. Traditionally, only men attend the burial. The body should be aligned with the head facing toward the west, with three balls of packed soil used to prop it: one under the head, one under the chin, and one under the shoulders. Before the body is buried, those present generally pour three handfuls of soil into the grave while praying. Elaborate grave markers, flowers, or other mementos are discouraged.

Grieving etiquette. According to Muslim teachings, loved ones and relatives observe a three-day mourning period. Participants should abide by a few behavioral rules:

  • Be humble.

  • Express grief openly.

  • Do not speak about worldly affairs.

  • Do not joke or laugh.

  • Mention the good acts and deeds of the deceased, not the less desirable ones.

  • Those outside the immediate family should leave the funeral gathering after offering condolences, in order to allow family members to take care of matters related to the death. They're encouraged to prepare food for the deceased's family and to send it to them.