Coronavirus: Burials changing for Muslims amid UK’s high COVID-19 death rate

The scale of the lives lost from coronavirus can be seen at a cemetery in south London.

Eternal Gardens, which serves the capital’s Muslim communities, has gone from burying five bodies a week to 30.

To cope with the number of funerals, it has introduced saff-burials – a method of laying people to rest in rows named after the Arabic word for “rows”.

A first for British Muslims, it means 10 people can be buried in close succession, within one plot but in individual chambers – different to a mass burial.

Richard Gomersall, chief executive at GreenAcre cemeteries, said: “It’s being done at the request and needs of the Muslim community, who have come to us and said: ‘We really need to be able to increase the speed at which we can bury our loved ones.’

“At the moment they’re having to wait a week to two weeks and, within the Islamic tradition, that’s far too long.”

Muslims and Jews hasten funeral rites, a guidance that has remained unchanged for centuries. They believe it speeds the soul’s ascent to the heavens, and opens the door for loved ones left behind to start grieving.

Eternal Gardens prepared two graves, each 10 metres long and two metres wide, which can provide burials for a total of 40 people.

Mr Gomersall said: “Before coronavirus, Eternal Gardens would probably do about five burials a week. We’ve increased that currently to 30 burials a week. And by introducing the saff graves, we’ll be able to take that to 50 burials a week. And at the moment, we’re anticipating that will last for several weeks to come.”

On Friday afternoon, 10 people were buried in a row with wooden separation screens between each body to create individual chambers inside the grave. In keeping with Islamic traditions, bodies are buried without coffins, and wrapped in pure cotton shrouds which are biodegradable.

London Imaam Suleiman Ghani read funeral prayers for all 10 deceased before each body was carefully lowered into their final resting places.

“This is not a mass grave,” he said. “It is only to accommodate and to ensure that in two days they were able to dig up this grave, whereas imagine digging 10 individual graves, it may take over a week.

“Given the large number of those that need to be buried, it makes it easier for the hospitals because they don’t have the capacity for these bodies and it’s very important for Muslims. There has to be a burial. There is no cremation allowed in Islam.”

More than 2,000 people have died from coronavirus in London’s hospitals, including 33 year-old Ayoub Akhtar from South London.

Mr Akhtar’s sister Shaista described the day of the burial as “painfully long”.

She said: “He was gentle, caring, loving and a humble person. He was a practising Muslim.”

Social distancing means Mr Akhtar’s family were not present in person, so they arranged a floral arrangement to accompany him on his final journey. Mr Akhtar’s brother Nasser drove to the cemetery gates.

“I went outside and the most I could do was sit there, wait five minutes, not do anything and just go home,” he said.

“It’s just difficult. The last time I saw my brother was three weeks ago. He went in an ambulance and that was the last time I saw him.”

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