Muslims fight for the right burial rites
TheStar.com - GTA - Muslims fight for the right burial rites
July 15, 2009
When Ashfaq Abdul Razzak's father became deathly ill before a long weekend, he prayed his father would hold out another few days.
As a Muslim, he had to be buried within 24 hours. But the cemetery in Pickering where his family had purchased a plot was unable to do the burial on Good Friday. Razzak's father died at dawn on Friday, but it wasn't until Saturday – more than 30 hours later – that he was buried.
"I tried my best to have the burial on Friday, but they said there was nothing they could do, because that day they had no staff," Razzak said. "I understand they have their own rules. But if we have our own cemetery, we can do what we have to."
For years, Muslims have buried their dead in non-denominational cemeteries across the city, often at the cost of compromising on Islamic funeral rites and rituals.
But as the population ages and grows – nearly 300,000 in the GTA – there is an increasing need for a separate cemetery where the city's Muslims can lay their dead to rest quickly, correctly and in peace.
"Why do Muslims have to go through such challenges and compromises, especially at the time of a loved one's death?" said Abul Haq Ingar, with the Islamic Society of Toronto.
Two groups are now searching for land to build the city's first large Muslim cemetery.
The Toronto Muslim Cemeteries Corporation, of which Ingar is a part, has been scouring the GTA for an 8- to 20-hectare parcel of land for the past year. The Islamic Society of North America is also working on a cemetery project, targeting land in the west end of the city.
Their searches repeatedly have hit dead ends.
"There are not many properties available (in the GTA) to be zoned (for use as a cemetery)," Ingar said. "Those that can be zoned are very far or very expensive."
One potential site, in Barrie, was quickly dismissed as too far away. Ingar's group is looking in Richmond Hill, Ajax, Whitby and Brampton.
The growing urgency behind the initiative is twofold: Cremation is forbidden in Islam and community members, many of whom settled in Toronto in the 1960s, are aging. Ingar says 3,000 to 4,000 gravesites are needed every year.
An Islamic burial has a few key requirements, including:
The body must be buried within 24 hours.
The deceased should be carefully washed and shrouded.
The face must be turned toward Mecca.
However, in most mainstream cemeteries, hours of operation are limited, burials can't happen at night or during holidays and often cost extra on weekends. "We could bury 24 hours a day if we have (a cemetery)," Ingar said.
At present, most Muslims have little choice about the direction of their plot and the way the body is placed.
There is one small, dedicated Muslim cemetery in the GTA. It was created for the city's minority Shiite community by businessman Atta Hussain in Markham in 2002.
"I came here in 1980, and one day I had a thought that if I die, where will I be buried?"
After years of wrangling with the town, Hussain was able to convert one acre of his Al Hussain Foundation Centre, a mostly empty 14-hectare property, to a small cemetery. Over the past seven years, it has held 100 burials.
But the road to a larger dedicated Muslim cemetery could be a long one. It took Ottawa's Muslim community 15 years to secure 12 hectares of land and obtain a provincial licence to operate a cemetery.
Kemal Ally, the treasurer of Ottawa Muslim Cemetery, said the group looked at more than 160 sites, but most were unusable because of soil conditions, environmental tests and zoning requirements. Ingar says Toronto's growing Muslim community can't endure such a long process.
"The longer we wait, the more challenging the process of getting a cemetery will be. The sooner we get a cemetery, the more at peace the community will be."
RICHARD LAUTENS/TORONTO STAR
The Al Hussain Foundation Centre in Markham is the site of a small dedicated Muslim cemetery, one of the few such cemeteries in Canada. Two groups seek land for new cemetery