By Nadia Batool Bokhari

As more is understood about the transmission of COVID-19 some 19 months into the pandemic, some religious communities in North Carolina are breathing sighs of relief at being able to return to preparing bodies for burial as they have traditionally done for centuries.

Many Jews and Muslims, for example, have been in turmoil since the early days of the pandemic about their inability to prepare the bodies of those who died, whether from COVID-19 or unrelated disease, as they typically would have.

Now they can. Safely, too.

Research now shows that COVID-19 is spread mainly through respiratory droplets produced when an infected person coughs, sneezes or talks.

In the early days of the pandemic, when scientists and health care workers did not know exactly how COVID could be transmitted from person to person, people in Muslim, Jewish and other communities with religious rites and practices around preparing bodies for burial, were forced to improvise amid the uncertainty the pandemic brought to this most intimate of traditions.

There were rumors around what government authorities might be requiring and there was the extraordinary burden on religious communities who were not able to mourn in their customary way. 

Not to mention the initial uncertainty about whether COVID could be transmitted through touching the body of someone who had been infected with the virus.

Members of the Muslim and Jewish communities made urgent queries to religious scholars, both local and international. There were questions about washing, shrouding and burying the bodies of people who had died of COVID. 

And what about services that required a certain number of people to be present in order to pray? Many families could not attend last rituals for their own families amid the uncertainty. Some participated from afar over Skype or Zoom. Did that fulfill religious obligations, many were left to wonder.

It was a challenging time for the faithful. 

Fatwas required

Ruby Abidi and her husband Saiyid Hasnain worried about all these questions. The Raleigh couple has been in this country for 35 years and are active in the Triangle Muslim community through IABAT (Islamic Ahlul Bayt Association of the Triangle).

Abidi said that it was an uncertain time, especially as she waited for instructions on how to proceed with a service that she believes is a blessing for the dead.

At one time, Abidi was called upon to prepare the body of a young Muslim woman who had died from COVID. 

“It was a really hard time for me to leave that young, unmarried female’s dead body unattended,” Abidi said during an interview conducted in her native language, Urdu. The death occurred in the early spring of 2020, when people still feared that handling a person who died from COVID would put their own lives in danger, an act that is also forbidden under Sharia law. 

“I covered myself properly, with the help of my friends, to wear a gown, gloves, double mask and face shield,” she said. 

Abidi was guided, like many others, by the rulings of Islamic scholars who gave fatwas — legal opinions under Sharia law —  to guide them on how to treat their dead. One of the most influential set of instructions came from renowned Iraqi Muslim scholar Al Sayyid Sistani, who published fatwas on preparing bodies on his website on March 28, 2020. 

In response to questions about ritual anointing and shrouding, the scholar wrote:  “If it is not possible to wash the body in fear of transmitting the infection, then the duty, if possible, becomes that an alive human should perform dry ablution (Tayammum) on the body, even if he must wear gloves [to do so].

“If this is also not possible or it was not allowed by the relevant authorities, the body can be buried without Ghusl (ritual washing) or performing dry ablution (Tayammum).”

That’s what Abidi had to do in the case of the young woman. She had been dead for several days before she was discovered in a hotel room. 

“I gave Tayammum instead, purifying [the body] with soil,” she said. 

Another allowance Islamic scholars made during the pandemic was to let people preparing bodies keep the corpse in an unopened body bag and wrap the required shroud around the body — bag and all — for their protection. 

“I helped to move her body with the help of a big cloth sheet to give her a compulsory shroud,” said Abidi. 

“Myself and my two daughters washed and shrouded the female dead bodies and my husband Hasnain with my only son Syed Hassani helped wash, shroud, funeral prayers and burial to male dead bodies among other volunteers according to the Sharia laws,” said Abidi.

Prayers via Zoom

Rabbi Daniel Greyber from Beth El Synagogue in Durham said that similar to the Muslim community, the pandemic changed many Jewish funeral rituals.

In his congregation, no one died from COVID but some members had close relatives who did and they were prevented from performing their usual care for the dead. 

“First of all dead bodies shouldn’t be left alone, someone stays until the burial with the body. But during the pandemic it hasn’t happened,” said Greyber. Instead, that rite —  called shemira —  was kept through people watching the body via Zoom. Those online vigils were arranged through the staff of the funeral homes handling the arrangements. 

Similar to challenges faced by Muslims, Greyber said that the ritual washing of bodies was problematic.

“The Burial Society wasn’t able to wash the body,” he said. “Usually, before and after washing the body, people ask forgiveness of the person if something proper has not happened to the body. 

“During the pandemic people asked for forgiveness from the person through Zoom,” he said.

Likewise, Jewish tradition requires wrapping a body in a shroud. But at the height of the pandemic, the faithful were permitted to simply put a shroud on the top of the body. 

The traditional week of “sitting shiva”, a gathering for the departed soul in a close relative’s home, also changed. Again, this ritual was conducted online, instead of in-person.

In some cases, COVID victims were brought from the hospitals, where they died, directly to the cemetery, said Rabbi Eric M. Solomon from Beth Meyer Synagogue in Raleigh. 

He said about 10 members of his congregation died during the peak of the pandemic. 

“At that time funeral homes didn’t offer any wash and shroud services to them,” Solomon said. “People did prayers remotely over Zoom and phones.”  

Instead, all the rituals were performed by the cemetery staff. It was only after vaccines became available that funeral homes started offering limited services, he said. 

Where to inter the dead?

In addition to having strict rules about treating corpses, Muslim law also excludes the use of cremation even though it is far less expensive than burial. During the pandemic, Abidi and Hasnain arranged training workshops so other Muslims could learn how to wash, shroud and bury bodies according to Sharia laws. 

Raleigh Muslims have a place in a Christian graveyard inside the city, where they can bury their dead. There are also two Muslim graveyards in Burlington and Siler City, and the use of the Siler City location costs nothing. 

But, transporting a body to such distant places can be costly and difficult, Adibi said. 

“I would say that thank God all were buried in Raleigh otherwise driving 80 miles to bury them in a Muslim graveyard would be more challenging for us,” said Hasnain. 

Abidi, her husband and children tried their best to keep some semblance of their burial rituals alive, but some Muslim communities were not able to take the steps they did. Volunteers who often would have shown up to help families with the traditions stayed away because of the pandemic.

“Families who lost their loved ones were very upset even though they were not willing to show their dead bodies in a graveyard, which is a tradition in our culture before burials,” said Abidi.

Steps for Muslims washing a dead body, shrouding and burial:

1) To remove Najasaat (ritually unclean substances) from the body, using soap & water.

2) To do the first wash, mix some jujube (ziziphus spina christi) powder into a bucket with pure and clean water, then wash the head and neck, in the following order: right side, front and back, washing the private parts and then left side, front, back and privates. While this is being done the body should be covered with a sheet, and the person should not view the private parts. 

3) Repeat the same process two more times. 

4) Then, after mixing camphor into the water, repeat the same process as above, three times.  

5) Finally, the body is washed with plain water. 

6) To embalm (Hanoot) the body, use powdered camphor and rub on the forehead, both palms, both knees and on top of tongue.

7) If available, apply dirt from the holy city of Karbala.

8) To enshroud the body requires one piece of unstitched cloth to be wrapped around the waist, another piece on the upper body as a shirt, and finally, a large sheet to cover the whole body wrapped around. 

9) If a body is infected by COVID and in a body bag, this can all be done over the bag for the safety of handlers. 

10) Funeral prayers are performed after the body is prepared.

11) Muslim bodies are not allowed to be cremated under any conditions.

12) The size of a grave is appropriate to the height of deceased, normally around 6.5 feet in length and 4 feet wide and about 5 feet deep. 

13) Muslims can be buried in any regular graveyard with other non-Muslims provided they are in a separate area with other Muslim graves. 

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Nadia Batool Bokari is a Columbia University graduate, freelance journalist and TV anchor from Pakistan. She has over a decade of international reporting experience, often focusing on issues of social...