Death in South Asian Muslim culture II – burial

December 9, 2009 at 12:30 am (Islam, South Asia)

In Pakistan, once someone dies, relatives (who usually are around if the person was expected to die shortly, if not they converge quickly) take and body and bathe it. It is given the ritual washings of wuzu (ritual ablutions) and ghusl (bath). The body is often scented. It is then wrapped in shrouds – five for women, three for men. Pieces of cloth are used to bind the body around the elbows and feet. The nose and mouth are filled with cotton. The deceased wear no other clothing or vestments.

The people who perform this are usual close relatives of the same sex. Strangers or non-relatives may be used as needed. To be able to bathe the body of a dead person is considered an act of great merit.

Once wrapped in shrouds (often one can part of the top-most shroud to uncover the face), the body is moved to where mourners are. While awaiting for people to gather for the funeral prayers to be said, people recite the Qur’an and pious texts.

At the appropriate time, people gather for the funeral prayer (namaaz-e janaazah). It is considered to be of great merit to participate in a funeral prayer, whether for someone one knew or for a stranger. The funeral prayer contains a number of takbeeraat (“proclaiming ‘Allaahu akbar’ with certain gestures of the hands and arms”) along with short prayers for the dead person: that their sins be forgiven them, that they go to Heaven.

After the funeral prayer, the bier is lifted and carried. There are no pallbearers – everyone (all men, of course) are encouraged to do what in Urdu is called kandha dena (lit., “give the shoulder”) which means to carry or transport the bier. How it works is sort of complicated – people revolve in a clockwise pattern, then make room for others to take their place. I remember when my maternal grandfather died and his bier was taken in a bus, the bier was passed back and forth, back and forth the entire time. One often says the shahaadah whilst doing this or close to such an activity.

The bier is then carried to the grave. Depending on the locality, the body might be lifted from the bier, head facing Mecca, and laid in the grave. Each person there throws in three fistfuls of dirt, then the grave is filled. A simple stone is placed at the head, and certain portions of the Qur’an are recited. More supplications are made for the forgiveness of the deceased’s sins and that he/she will go into Heaven.

In the US, what I have noticed is that the bier is lowered into an open concrete box, and a slab is placed over it. Dirt is thrown over the box, then the grave filled. Sometimes people are buried in the concrete box in a simple coffin, sometimes not.

This usually happens within 24 hours. When my maternal grandmother passed away (she passed away in Pakistan), she was buried within 4 hours. When another person I knew passed away here, she was buried within 18 or so hours. (They were waiting for some of her sons to fly in, and wanted to have her namaaz-e janaazah after the afternoon prayers.)

All in all, it’s quite simple. No undertakers, no funeral homes, no elaborate presentations. Very simple.


  1. Enas Yorl said,

    Merry Christmas Muslihoon!

  2. Mrs. Peel said,

    Musli! I just finished off some hot chocolate, in my brand spanking new mug. Thanks again!

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