Mourning together, virtually: How our Muslim community adapted using technology

Authors: Mohamed Ali, Ayan Abshir & Equity Response Team

Death is a universal experience, no matter what race or religion one identifies with. In Islam, Muslims are taught to overcome tragic circumstances with containment (Rida), gratitude (Hamd), patience (Sabr), and firm belief in destiny (Qadr). Although, death is a fact of life, it is never easy to lay a loved one to rest.

The local Somali community in Seattle was recently devastated by the first COVID-19 death. This death has brought to the surface the stress our community already deals with as Black immigrant Muslims. Yet, the resilience of our community is astonishing. Even while abiding by public health advisories, our community maintains a strong commitment to honoring cultural practices and religious rituals to honor the dead and we continue our strong tradition of comforting bereaved families.

On the morning of April 6th, the local Somali community experienced a huge blow when it became known that an elderly man in his 70’s, a man well known within the community, had passed away from COVID-19. Earlier in the week, he was rushed to Harborview Medical Center with shortness of breath and worsening symptoms, compatible with COVID 19.   Unfortunately, his condition deteriorated, and he was admitted to the ICU and put on a ventilator.

His loved ones felt stricken with emotion, so they prayed for him and visited him the following day. But soon after they left, his condition worsened, and he passed away. His family was notified and were distraught with indescribable pain. Just like that, a community once filled with radiant smiles was plunged into deep mourning for their loved one.

Burials by Family & Community Faith Leadership

In the Islamic tradition, after a loved one passes away, there are five main steps that are closely followed in preparation for burial.

  1. The body is properly washed (ghusl)
  2. The body is covered with a white cloth
  3. Funeral prayer is recited (Janazah)
  4. There is a funeral procession (carrying the body to the grave)
  5. Burial and invocation

Due to COVID-19, new public health guidelines made it necessary to step away from our everyday Islamic traditions. Since the body cannot be washed in this case, there is an Islamic code of conduct in which a person who died from a contagious disease falls under the category of a martyr. In the case of this elderly man, his family were concerned on how to properly bury him in keeping with Islamic guidance and following the COVID-19 guidelines.

He was brought to the Medical Examiner’s Office—who has been in collaboration with the Muslim community through past situations—where his death was registered. The family and community leaders were advised not to touch the body, and he was directly transported from the funeral home to the Muslim cemetery. Only 10 people were allowed to attend in order to remain compliant with social distancing guidelines.

Virtual Memorial Service

In Islam, there is a three-day mourning period, in which the community visits the home of the deceased to offer prayers and condolences. Unfortunately, due to COVID-19, this was not possible because of the stay-at-home order.

With the help from a community leader, the idea of an online memorial service was presented and with that, a Zoom conference occurred on April 7th. Over 100 members of the Seattle community, along with a friend from Minnesota, attended the online memorial service. Many people who didn’t have access to the Zoom account were connected through audio-phone to offer their condolences. The main speaker was a Sheikh from the Al-Karim mosque who paid tribute to the deceased.  

Family members of the deceased shared happy memories of him, recalling, how much he was respected in the community, and how he lived a good life. His family received a tremendous amount of community support and healing through this virtual service, which made up for the lack of in-person interaction. The importance of this community coming together in this difficult time of uncertainty is truly inspiring and it shows that when people work together, they can find creative solutions to challenges we face.