Muslims: Death And The Dead
After death, the soul of the deceased is freed from the body and goes to rejoin friends and family who have died previously. The body will be resurrected after death and so is disposed of carefully. It is the duty of all Muslims to make sure that another Muslim receives a proper funeral, even if they have no relatives and cannot pay for it. In death, there is no difference between a king and a pauper.
moment of death
In general, Muslims accept brain death as the moment of death. However, the situation may become complicated if the deceased was on life support before death, or if organs are to be harvested. This is because of the prohibition against desecrating a dead body, as discussed below. Where possible, consult with an imam or respected community elder and involve the family in the process of death.
If you are with a Muslim when they die, then there are some things that healthcare staff can do to help the dead and comfort their family. Firstly, put on some gloves so that you do not directly touch the body. Turn the person's head towards Makkah (usually south-east in the UK), straighten the legs and arms and close the mouth and eyes. Cover the body entirely with a white cloth.
If the family are not already in attendance, then call them immediately. Allow them privacy to pray over the body before its removal to the morgue.
It is important that all paperwork is completed as quickly as possible; although there is no direct rule for burial to occur within a given timeframe, the family will want to take their dead home as soon as possible so that they can wash and prepare it for burial. After being washed and wrapped in a shroud, the body will be taken to the local mosque and funeral prayers said over it, which may be led by the imam or the eldest surviving male relative.
preparation of the body
The body will be washed by a member of the family of the same sex. The water they use will be carefully perfumed or scented, and perfume will also be used to wash out the mouth and nostrils. A male body will then be dressed in three robes and a female in five robes, before a shroud is wound around the body to cover it completely. If the deceased had visited Makkah in the past, the sheets they used to dress themselves for the Hajj will be used as their shroud as an additional symbol of their purity in life.
talking to the family
For a Muslim, death is simply the pause between life in the material world and the life they will lead with Allah before resurrection. Death is entirely in Allah's hands, and so Muslims believe that there is nothing a mere human can do to delay or hasten a death that Allah has planned. Although there is obvious grief at losing a child, spouse or friend, there is also acceptance that the deceased have been called by Allah at the appropriate time, and that sooner or later everyone will meet again.
For this reason, simple statements of empathy are appropriate when speaking to the family. You will also greatly ease their minds if you can assure them that proper procedure has been followed in dealing with their deceased: no non-Muslim has touched the body (and especially non-Muslims of the opposite gender), the face was turned towards Makkah, and that they can collect the body quickly for washing and burial.
It is very unlikely that a Muslim family will allow a post-mortem to be performed on their deceased relative unless there is an overwhelming legal necessity to do so. Desecration of the dead body is considered to be a horrific thing to happen; the body must be buried intact wherever possible because it is required for resurrection later. If a post-mortem is necessary, then discuss this with the family and, if possible, an imam as well.
Show great respect to the dead, and do not handle the body without wearing gloves. Try to keep the body covered up as much as possible, and where feasible use non-invasive methods to determine the cause of death. Female bodies should be dealt with by female staff as far as possible, and male bodies by male staff. When the post-mortem is completed, replace all of the organs and removed tissues, close all incisions, cover any wounds and cover the body with a clean white cloth. Do not wash it – this is a ritual task that the family will carry out themselves.
Islam is an ancient religion and, although the Qur'an is considered to be timeless, medical advances have led to debates about the interpretation of various surah as Muslims adapt to a changing world. Organ donation has been much debated, because it brings into conflict the desire to bury the dead intact and without desecration with the desire and duty to save life. Essentially, a Muslim may state in their will that organs may be taken, but even then organs are permitted to be harvested only for immediate transplant into another Muslim in the pursuit of saving life. Organs cannot be taken for storage and cannot be used in a non-Muslim patient.
If the deceased was on life support, then they may be kept on the life support until the transplant team are ready – providing this does not conflict with the family's desire to bury their dead. The subject of organ donation is a highly emotive one, and one where the medical world can seem highly callous to Muslims. Great sensitivity is needed at this time, and the advice of an imam – and discussion with the family – is vital.
The bodies of Muslims are always buried rather than cremated. The body will be taken to the cemetery as quickly as possible for burial. Coffins are not often used so that the body can be in close contact with the soil. The body is lowered into the grave as further prayers are said, and the right side of the body is turned to face towards Makkah. The head is also inclined in this direction. Prayers are said and passages from the Qur'an are read out to ease the soul of the deceased on its journey to heaven.
Graves are left with the ground slightly raised, and no ornamentation such as headstones is permitted. Women do not often attend funerals, but they will visit the grave for many years to pay their respects.
donation of body to science
This would constitute a desecration of the body and so is haram (forbidden). If a post-mortem has to be carried out on the deceased, place all organs back into the body and take care to close all wounds or incisions (see 'post-mortem' above).
Suicide is forbidden (haram) under Islamic law. However, the body of anyone who has committed suicide must be treated with equal respect by the healthcare team, and the procedures outlined above must be followed. Inform the family and allow them to care for the deceased as normal.
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