A life in the Netherlands, but buried in Morocco

A survey of Muslim funeral preferences

Mark AhsmannIslamitic graves in the Netherlands

By Petra Meijer

Anthropologist Khadija Kadrouch-Outmany researched Islamic funerals in the Netherlands and Belgium, asking young Moroccans about their preferences. Mare accompanied her to a cemetery: “They’ll cheer for the Dutch football team, but to be buried here is pushing it too far.”

(De Nederlandse versie van dit artikel staat hier)
“Come on, we need to walk over to the edges of the graveyard”, says Khadija Kadrouch-Outmany (1983) while she scans the acres of headstones. “That’s where the Muslim graves are.” It’s quiet at the Nieuw Eykenduinen cemetery in The Hague. “Most Muslims visit their deceased family members’ graves on Friday, the holy day. It’s regarded as a good sign if you die on a Friday.”
In the middle of the graveyard, the graves all face the same way but along the sides, next to an acre with the uncompromising sight of children’s graves adorned with teddy bears, the graves are positioned differently.
“In the grave, most Muslims are laid on their right side, facing Mecca, with some earth under their right cheek. However, the direction of prayer is not the same for everyone. While Mecca lies to the east of the Netherlands, a few Javanese Muslims have brought with them to the Netherlands the custom of facing west in prayer; accordingly, their graves sometimes face the other way.”
There are other differences besides the position of the headstones: the Islamic part of the public cemetery is divided into smaller compartments, each separated from the other by low hedges or rows of paving stones. “The little black signs state the denomination to which these people belong. For instance, this one says: General Islamic acre, and this one says General Ahmadiyya acre.”
Kadrouch-Outmany thinks that Dutch policy makers show little compassion for the differences in Muslim communities when they build just one Islamic cemetery. “There’s no such thing as the Muslim or the Islam. Muslims come from all over the world and have very divergent ideas. That applies not only to rituals and beliefs in life but in death too. Some communities exclude other denominations: Shias and Sunnis want their own acres while Ahmadiyya are not regarded as Muslims by many Muslims.”
Forty per cent of the Muslims interviewed by the anthropologist want to be buried with Muslims from their own denomination. Some Muslims believe that it is unwise to be buried near non-Muslims because of the punishment awaiting the non-Muslims in the grave. The proximity of that punishment might disturb or harm them.
The doctoral thesis reveals just how much the beliefs differ per denomination. “In many cases, women may attend the procession but there are Muslims who turn women away, even family members.” Supposedly, the women could form a distraction or might not be able to control their emotions and so disrupt the procession.
The story of Najima, a Moroccan woman who wanted to bury her husband but was turned away by the imam, is a good illustration of this issue.

My family didn’t have a problem with women or non-Muslims attending the procession, but the imam leading it was against the idea. I can still see him now, shouting to all the woman and non-Muslims to clear the cemetery! For a moment, I considered pushing him into the grave! I just couldn’t deal with the fuss at the time. There I was, still in my twenties with a new-born baby: I just wanted to bury my husband. I just wanted to say goodbye to him without the imam disrupting everything. My father simply turned to the imam, asked him politely to leave and we carried on without him.

Kadrouch-Outmany’s study reveals that approximately 25 per cent of Dutch municipalities have an Islamic cemetery, and if a separate acre is not available, six per cent offer the option of a plot facing Mecca.
But Dutch policy was not always suited to Muslim funeral preferences. According to Islamic beliefs, the deceased must be buried as soon as possible, preferably within 24 hours, because only then will their souls find peace. Nonetheless, written permission is necessary before a person may be buried and, in the Netherlands, that is often only granted after 36 hours.
“Nowadays, exceptions are allowed. In the Netherlands, is customary to bury people in coffins while deceased Muslims are usually wrapped in shrouds. The law changed in 1991 and coffins are no longer compulsory as long as the ground is firm enough.”
Another delicate issue is the duration, as Kadrouch-Outmany explains: “Muslims regard the cemetery as the first station to the next world, so the grave should be left undisturbed for as long as possible. In the Netherlands, graves are usually cleared after a number of years. Islamic countries tend to be less explicit about it, only clearing them after eighty years or so, when everybody has forgotten who was buried there.”

Respondent Louay explains: “As long as nobody says that the grave has been allocated for a certain length of time, you assume it will be there forever. That’s how we do things in Morocco. No one in Morocco says bluntly: ‘This grave will be cleared in fifty years’ time’, which is why people feel reassured and want to be buried there.”

Even now, ninety per cent of Muslims choose to be repatriated after death and this preference is supported by an enormous organisational structure, including insurance arranged by banks and religious organisations. “In Morocco, people are quite accustomed to deceased Muslims ‘arriving from abroad’. The graves are wider to accommodate coffins instead of shrouds, as the bodies are flown out to Morocco.”
From the interviews, it emerges that emotional considerations rather than practical or legal objections influence a Muslim’s choice to be buried in his or her native country. “In the Netherlands, you can rent a grave ‘for eternity’ too, as long as you renew the lease and pay the bill. Cemetery managers think that young Muslims are a future market, but though my respondents were often Dutch-born and support the Dutch football team, it’s pushing it too far to be buried in the Netherlands. In matters of life, they feel Dutch but consider themselves Moroccans in death.” Nevertheless, traditional Islamic beliefs are not always upheld, as the researcher discovered.

Respondent Gulsah said: “I don’t believe that anything happens in the grave. I want to be cremated when I die. I don’t belong to any particular city or country, I belong to the whole world! I want my ashes to be scattered at sea. I would never say that I want to be cremated while parents are alive: they just wouldn’t understand why a Muslim would want that. I believe in resurrection and that everyone must account for his deeds but that is not connected to what happens to your body.”

Still, 26 per cent of the respondents, relatively often Surinamese or Indonesian Muslims, want a Dutch funeral. 
“They feel a stronger connection to the Netherlands, whereas respondents from Turkey and Morocco feel alienated from Dutch society and want to return to their roots.
The current debate on Islam and the political climate in the Netherlands has a lot to do with that. It would be very interesting to repeat this study after two or three generations. Funerals express how Muslims regard themselves and the society of which they are part.”
During the interviews and her visits to the various graveyards, Kadrouch-Outmany was often asked why she had chosen Islamic funerals as a subject for her doctoral thesis.
“They said, “But lass, you’re still so young and carefree!” But my research isn’t about death; it’s about rituals in a non-Islamic environment and the rights of Muslims to carry out their own rituals, about the divorce of religion and state and about funerals being a window for studying identity and integrity. Besides, cemeteries don’t make me sad. Sometimes, I think the Dutch put away their dead as soon as possible so they can get on with their lives. Muslims visit the dead as if they’re visiting a living person.”
Where would she prefer to be buried? Her eyes glance across the graves. “Five years ago, I would have considered the matter differently but I’ve had a child since then and I have my own family. My mother is buried in Morocco and I would like to be buried near her. I really miss being able to visit her grave easily. Now I’ve a child of my own, I don’t want to put him through that so I might choose to be buried here.”
She smiles. “On the other hand, I don’t know where he will go when he’s older. After all, he’s only six months old.”

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