Imam Rizwan Rawat, chaplain at Michael Sobell House and part of the Spiritual Care Team, was recently involved in organising a Muslim burial over the last week of someone’s life. Here, he discusses the importance of a quick burial in Islam, the organisation of the burial and how working with the Watford Muslim Community made this important rite possible. Rizwan writes below.
“We had quite a young patient who was in a difficult financial position. She was a devout Muslim and I would sit and pray with her. In late December, one of our speciality doctors told me that this patient had maybe days if not hours left to live, so I came into the Inpatient Unit at Michael Sobell House to see her. As a Muslim, we knew that when this particular person died it would be important for her to be buried as soon as possible.
“The reason why having an almost immediate burial is important to our faith comes down to Islamic beliefs about death. Once someone has received their funeral rites, they’ve been washed, shrouded, the funeral prayers have been said and everyone has left, then the angels will come and ask questions about how they were in life surrounding their faith and what they did that was good. Your grave will become an opening into the next life. If there is a big delay between when someone has died and when they are buried, we are not fulfilling their rites because their journey to the afterlife cannot begin yet. The location of burial doesn’t really matter because those angels will still visit you wherever your grave is. Also, in our belief, when someone dies, they go back as they are. They will have a ritual wash and then be wrapped in a cloth and put into the grave, there won’t be any changes made to the body.
The Michael Sobell way
“Technically, this second stage of a person’s end of life journey, their funeral and burial, is out of our remit. I could have just planned to offer bedside prayers and then left it down to the family. We could have done that but that’s not the Michael Sobell way. We were going to ensure that whatever rites that patient had, whatever the family needed, we would try our best, within our means, to achieve it.
“I reached out to a member of the Watford Muslim Community, who had told me in the past that if I ever needed some support with organising a burial, I could contact them and they would arrange the washing and shrouding. They said to me, “I’ll sort everything out. I’ll arrange the transport when she passes away. All you need to do as the chaplain is to work with the staff at the House to ensure that the death certificate is issued as soon as possible”. I also approached Gardens of Peace, which is a Muslim cemetery in North East London, who I knew could provide the grave, headstone, and their continued upkeep, as well as a peaceful place for the graveside prayers to take place.
Everyone had made it
“The next week, whilst I was at my mosque invigilating exams, I called the House and spoke to one of the nurses just as someone was going into the patient’s room to check on her. In that exact moment that I phoned she had died. The speciality doctor who was coming in that morning is from a Jewish background, and the Muslim and Jewish communities have a similar concept regarding burial so she understood the need for everything to happen as soon as possible. Whilst I was at the mosque, the doctor sorted the woman’s death certificate so her husband could take it to the registry office, get the burial forms and attend the funeral prayers in the Watford Mosque.
“In Islam, there are two parts to a funeral; the funeral prayers which usually take place at the mosque and the graveside prayers which I would be with the family for. My exams finished and I made it to Gardens of Peace around 10 minutes before them. I just couldn’t believe it when they arrived. All the way from Northwood to Watford to Chigwell in seven hours, everyone had made it!
“The whole story is really about community cohesion”
“One of the biggest factors that enabled us to accomplish the quick burial was the involvement of the Watford Muslim Community. When people found out what we were doing they offered us all kinds of support, both for the burial itself and for the future. The manager at Gardens of Peace came over to me at the end of the burial and said: “Thank you for everything you did. We’re grateful that you contacted the Watford community. If anything ever happens in the future take my number and everything will be covered, from the washing and shrouding to the burial and graveside prayers. If someone is identified as Muslim, and there’s no family or the family aren’t in a strong financial position, rather than giving the person who has died over to the local authority we will ensure their rites are fulfilled.” You never know when community ties might be established or strengthened but this is an example of that; at the House we now know who we can reach out to if we ever need support with this kind of burial again.
“I’ve been in touch with the husband a couple of times since his wife died, just to see how he’s getting on. Part of our holistic approach to healthcare is making sure that those close to the person who has died are supported. When I talk about everything now, I actually get a bit teary because she was such a young lady and we just tried our utmost best to respect the religious rites. The whole story is really about community cohesion, within the Watford Muslim Community and the links that I as a chaplain develop. I can’t just come to the Inpatient Unit and visit patients and not mingle with the community. Community work is a really important part of my role as a person in a position of care.”