Attending a Muslim Funeral – A Guide for Non-Muslims
When a Muslim is near death, those around him or her are called upon to give comfort, and reminders of God’s mercy and forgiveness. They are encouraged to recite verses from the Holy Qur’an, and the dying may also recite words of prayer. It is recommended, for a Muslim’s last words to be the declaration of faith, that is, “I bear witness that there is no god but Allah.” However, there should be no coercion to recite this statement. Beyond this, efforts should be made to make the last moments as comfortable for the individual as possible. Offering water and physical comfort is recommended.
When the time of death is close, those around the soon to be deceased continuously recite the declaration of faith (La-ilaha illalahu Muhammad-dar rasool-lallah - There is no god but God and Prophet Mohammad (peace be upon him) is His Messenger.
Upon death, those with the deceased are encouraged to remain calm, pray for the departed, and begin preparations for burial. Grief is normal when one has lost a loved one, and it is natural and permitted to cry. One should strive to be patient and to remember that God is the One who gives life and takes it away – at a time He decides – and that it is not for us to question His wisdom.
Upon hearing that someone has passed away we recite 'Ina illahi wa ina ilahi rajioon' - 'To God we belong and To Him we shall return'.
It is a reminder of our own impending death, which no-one is immune from, so we should plan our life and make provisions accordingly.
A loss of an individual is not just regarded as a loss to the family but to the whole Muslim community as well. For this reason, it is common for people who may not know an individual personally to attend his/her funeral. In fact Muslims are encouraged to attend any Muslim’s funeral due to the profound personal, social and spiritual significance of such an event.
Muslims strive to bury the deceased as soon as possible after death therefore it is not unusual for the deceased to be buried within 24 hours of their death.
The main steps involved are Ghusl (washing of the body - once released by coroners/hospital etc), Kafn (shrouding of the body in two simple white sheets and some itr/perfume), performance of the funeral prayer and finally burial. The first two steps are performed only by selected relatives and community members due to the intimacy involved with the body. The funeral prayer is a Muslim ritual which must be performed by Muslims, though observers are welcome.
After the death of a loved one, Muslims will supplicate on behalf of the deceased, for God to forgive his or her sins. They will then visit the deceased's household for condolences. In Islam, the local community are encouraged to bring or arrange food for the deceased's household (to make the mourning period easier). Most Muslims will commence reading of the Holy Qur'an due to the belief that Allah (God) will send the rewards of their recitation to the deceased.
There are also some matters regarding etiquette that one should be aware of when attending the funeral. Women from the Muslim faith commonly do not attend the funeral however should non Muslim women wish to attend the following advice should be noted:
The dress code for Men and Women should be modest. This means a shirt and trousers for men and an ankle length skirt, which should not be tight or transparent, together with a long sleeved and high-necked top for the women. A headscarf is also essential for women. Shoes are removed before going into the prayer hall. Clean and presentable socks, stockings, or tights are therefore a good idea.
The funeral prayer
The congregation will line up in rows behind the deceased coffin to perform the Funeral prayer. It should be noted here that the funeral prayer is performed for the deceased and not to the deceased. Following its completion the congregation will form two lines and pass the coffin from shoulder to shoulder taking it towards the grave site. Visitors are welcome to follow the congregation as they move the coffin towards the grave however a short distance should be kept thereby allowing the congregation walking space to carry the coffin. Once at the grave the coffin will be lowered, usually by members of the family, and the grave filled. The Imam will then say a few final prayers at the graveside and following this, the congregation will disperse. The immediate members of the family will most likely remain at the graveside for a short while longer; this may be an opportune time for visitors to convey their condolences if they so wish.
It should be noted that grief and the way it is handled is dependant on people’s cultural influences and therefore the above advice should be treated as general guidance.
Benefiting the Deceased
According to Islam, from the moment of death, nothing will benefit the deceased except for three things:
Pious children who continue to perform good deeds and pray for their parent
Sadaqa Jariya (continuous charity which benefits in perpetuity e.g. building a well or a school)
Good knowledge which the deceased used to say (which should be shared and furthered by all)
Now the deceased is in his/her second life in the barzak (grave) awaiting the resurrection for the Day of Judgement when good and bad deeds will be judged by God All-Mighty and balanced on the Scales of Justice.
Family of the deceased
What is appropriate to do or give to a Muslim family after hearing of a death?
Card of sympathy and well-wishes
Donation towards a continuous charity (e.g. building a well) in the name of the deceased
Flowers that can be laid at the grave
Attendance at the burial
Visits to the household (a few days after the burial)
The reason for the three days quick burial is so that life can move on for the community since death is a part of life. The deceased's wife or husband usually continues mourning for a longer period of time.