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14.04.2008 Religion

Burial Of The Dead... The Islamic Way

By Khalid Ahmad -
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In an era of increasing costs to funeral expenses, Islamic burial of the dead is finding increasing appreciation and even acceptance for its simplicity, little cost and dignity.

I therefore want to use this medium to enlighten the public, particularly the Muslim communities on its salient features and technicalities for our right guidance.

The three processes involved in Muslim burial are: Preparation of the corpse, shrouding and interment. Immmediately a man/woman dies, his/her eyes should be closed by gently pressing the fingers of the hand over the pair of widely opened eyes. According to Islam’s Prophet 'the eyes of the dying man follows the spirit as it leaves the body' .

After that news of the death is conveyed to relatives, friends and the public. On hearing it one should pray in the words 'To Allah we belong and to Him is the final return'. It is expressly forbidden to wail by crying loudly accompanied by the tearing of clothings and scratching of the body including the face.

According to the Prophet, 'the dead is punished for the wailings of the living' (Bukhari, Muslim). On the contrary crying in subdued tones and sobbing are permitted. According to the Prophet 'The eyes are filled with tears and the heart is sorrowfull' (Bukhari).

An affected lady is therefore to mourn for the dead, for not more than three days, except in the instance of her husband when she should mourn for four months and ten days. (Bukhari, Muslim). Debts owned by the dead should be settled, as far as possible, before burial. According to the Prophet 'The soul of the believer is tied down to debt owed until it is paid' (Bukhari).


He who must do the washing of the corpse must satisfy the following conditions stipulated by the Prophet: 'Let the most trustworthy among you wash the bodies of the dead' (Ibn Majah). Trustworthy of not disclosing secrets pertaining to the corpse of the dead. This puts relatives of the dead on top of the ranking of trustworthy persons, since divulging of any secret pertaining to the dead will affect their honour.

Then comes close friends and righteous members of the Muslim community. Little wonder a wife and husband can each wash the body of the other when dead, in accordance with the Prophets’ dictum: 'If you (Ayesha) die I shall wash you and shroud you' (Ibn Majah, Ahmad, Nasai). Similarly, Hadrat Ali, fourth Khalifa of Islam, may Allah honour his face, washed and shrouded Hadrat Fatima, daughter of Islam’s Prophet when she died. (Qutni)

To wash the body, first it is preferable to put it on an object raised above floor level to make its handling much easier. Then press the hand gently but persistently against the stomach until no pus or liquid gets out from the body or the lower part of the body. If a liquid emerges then wipe it and close the outlet using cotton or a plaster. These measures ensure that no pus or liquid flows from the body into the shroud after the washing process.

Put on a pair of hand gloves made from cotton or plastic. Wash the private parts. Remove the gloves and put on a new pair. Perform ablution on the dead just as ablution is performed by the living. Having finished with the ablution perform the ritual cleansing (Ghuslul Janaabat) beginning with the head.

After that wash the right sides of the body first before the left until you complete it by washing the feet. Consult your Imam or Maulvi for full details if you do not know. After that you can wash the entire body with sponge, soap and lukewarm water ; the sponge should be soft like foam . You can wash the body with soap and sponge first before performing the ablution and ritual cleansing.

Dry the body with a clean towel, preferably a new one, put a sweet scent (Hunuut) on it and also sprinkle powdered camphor on it. In the case of a lady, the plaited hair should be loosened and washed during the process after which it should be made into three braids - one in front of the head and the other two on the right and left sides of the head.

The Prophet instructed Muslims to do it that way when they were washing the body of Hadrat Ruqya, his daughter (Bukhari). But for a martyr he/she is neither washed nor any prayers offered. According to the Prophet 'he should complain with his wounds and blood to Allah. The blood from the wound will smell most sweet like musk on the Day of Resurrection' (Bukhari).


The next thing is to shroud the body in three pieces of cloth without a shirt nor turban. 'The Prophet was shrouded in three pieces of white suhuuliyat cloth made of cotton without a shirt or turban' (Bukhari). It is preferred that ladies are shrouded in five pieces. Part of the shroud should be used in covering the head.

But for a person who dies while performing Hajj and wearing the Ihram, he should be buried in just two pieces without covering the head since he will be resurrected on the Resurrecting Day reciting the Talbiyya (Labbaika, Labbaika) (Bukhari). White cloths as shroud are preferred in accordance with the Prophet’s dictum, the use of silk as shroud is forbidden.

If a man dies among ladies or a lady dies among men then ablution with sand (Tayammum should be performed on the corpse for burial according to a prophetic utterance (Abu Daud).


Having finished washing and shrouding the body the Imam should lead the prayers offered for the dead (Salatul Janaza). After that the bier is lifted and taken to the cemetery for interment. Relatives, friends and sympathizers should either convey the coffin or accompany it in front, behind, left or right. No one should sit down till the coffin is finally put down near the grave, dug in advance.

The grave digging is done either by the Lahd (Grave with a side chamber) or by the shaqq (Straight cut). According to Prophetic utterance: 'Side chamber grave (Lahd) is for us, whilst the shaqq (Straight Cut) is for others '(Tirmizi). This makes the former better than the latter. Where there is enough space of land to dig the Lahd then Muslims must follow that. But where there is little space of land for burial, such as now obtains in urban centres, then the Shaqq is preferred. In the Lahd, you dig sideways to create a chamber after digging the rectangular grave first. In the Shaqq, the grave is dug straight downwards. See Fig. l and 2. It is perfectly Islamic for the community to lift the body from the coffin and lower it to relatives of the dead standing in the grave.

The grave should always face the direction of the Kaabah (Qibla). Hence the corpse must be laid on its right side with the face towards the Qiblah. Planks of wood are then used in covering it as shown in the diagram. Pieces of leaves are then put on the planks. The Imam, using the hand or shovel, will, three times, scoop soil dug from the grave and throw it in the direction of where the head lies. After that all present should scoop soil and fill the grave until completely covered, with some little mound at the top. See the Figures. Supplications are offered by the Imam and after hanging around for some reasonable length of time the crowd disperses.


When the Prophet, on whom be peace, died it was Hadrat Ali, his cousin, who led his washing and shrouding in the presence of four more companions. This shows that blood relations have more right not only in the washing process but in the burial. Similarly, when the son of Abu Talha died it was the wife who washed and shrouded the body. This is because they can be best counted upon to keep quiet in case of any physical defect, which at any rate, they might have been aware of all along.

Hence if relatives show strong desire to do their own washing and shrouding then they should be allowed to do so, provided they know how to do it. If not then let the knowledgeable people from the Jamaat assist them. The same also applies in the interment process. Let them receive the corpse and put it into the grave as the last opportunity to touch their loved ones.

Let a brother of the dead and a son or two sons put the corpse in its final resting place. When Ruqya, a daughter of the Prophet died, the Holy Prophet supervised the washing and shrouding from outside the room where they were preparing the body for burial giving them instructions according to Bukhari. At one point he removed his waist cloth and gave it to them to be used as shroud.

Similarly, when it came to receiving the corpse into the grave he asked Abu Talha to do that on his behalf. Scholarly opinion is that he was too grieved to carry on that responsibly since his eyes were shedding tears, which underscores the fact that the laying in the grave is best carried out by relatives of the dead. In absence of that other members of the Jamaat can do that as the situation demands.

In concluding, there are no fast and hard rules concerning who should do this or that during burial of the dead. Families are given first priority in the washing and in the laying of the dead in the grave. In absence of that the community can play those two roles. To eliminate relatives from the process, whilst the community assumes all responsibilities is certainly not Islamic. Let all those who do not know, understand this point and stop challenging out of ignorance.

Last but not the least, about two or three people should do the washing. One to do the actual washing, the other to hold the body, the third person then pours water on the body, as needed. May Allah guide us.

The writer is a research nuclear scientist at the Atomic Energy Commission in Accra

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