What guidelines should we observe with regard to Islamic funerals in the present Coronavirus (COVID-19) crisis?
In responding to your question, Sheikh Ahmad Kutty, a senior lecturer and an Islamic scholar at the Islamic Institute of Toronto, Ontario, Canada, states:
Before addressing this issue, allow me to first briefly state the purpose and procedure of Islamic funerals.
Islamic funerals fulfill three main objectives:
1- Ensure the body is bathed, shrouded and buried with care and respect.
2- Communal prayer beseeching God’s mercy and forgiveness on behalf of the deceased.
3- Provide an outlet for family and friends to share their grief and comfort each other
The first and most important rite after death is the ritual of purification (‘Ghusl‘). Ghusl is performed by close blood-relatives or friends of the deceased. In their absence, it may be done by those who are pious and knowledgeable in faith. The body is then shrouded in plain, unsewn, pieces of cloth – three for males, and five for females.
After the collective funeral prayer (‘janazah’), the body is taken to the cemetery for burial. After the grave has been filled with dirt and levelled, the mourners make their final supplications and bid farewell to the deceased.
Paying frequent visits to graves – to offer prayers for the deceased, and to reflect on one’s own inevitable demise – is a highly recommended practice in Islam.
All of the above are the funeral rituals in normal times. These can vary if there are circumstances which warrant special considerations or relaxations. The juristic dictum in Islamic law (‘Shariah’) states: ‘Where there is a hardship, the rule is relaxed.’
The spread of contagious diseases such as SARS, MERS, AIDS, Coronavirus (COVID-19) etc. necessitates special handling of corpses. While performing the rites of purification, shrouding or generally handling bodies, one must abide by strict safety protocols (including, but not limited to, wearing protective gear as recommended by health agencies).
COVID-19 is unlike anything the world has witnessed so far, as experts have repeatedly warned. So, handling those who may have suffered from this disease and attending their funerals requires stricter safety considerations.
A Muslim cannot take the issue of caring for those suffering from COVID-19 and performing funeral rites for them, lightly.
First, only those who are knowledgeable in the stringent safety requirements should handle funeral rites. If experts advise against bathing the deceased, then Tayammum should be performed instead. Tayammum involves striking clean ground and wiping the face once; then striking clean ground again and wiping the hands once (right and then left).
If experts advise against both Ghusl and Tayammum, then these should be skipped, and the body should be taken to the cemetery and buried. Only a few close relatives and friends, as directed by health personnel, should attend the funeral. Those in attendance must wear any protective gear and adhere to any rules recommended by health personnel. They should offer the Janazah prayer by the grave.
All of the above rules are intended to save lives – preservation of life is one of the highest objectives of the Shariah.
Islamic jurisprudence allows us to skip conditions we cannot fulfil, while still carry out the ritual. In other words, Ghusl is a condition for performing Janazah on the body, but this requirement is lifted when it cannot be carried out. This will be the case when the deceased was reduced to ashes, or dissolved in water completely, or when they were buried without Ghusl and cannot be retrieved whole, and finally, when Ghusl cannot be performed because of the risk of transmitting disease to those who perform it.
As for the last condition, as is the case with all rules of jurisprudence, ‘Ghalabat al-Zann‘ or strong probability is the criterion – not absolute certainty. Therefore, if health service personnel consider it risky to perform Ghusl or Tayammum, their advice must be heeded.
In such extreme cases, Ghusl and Tayammum can be waived – burial should proceed without them, with the janazah prayer offered by the grave after burial. There is no need to pour water on the box in lieu of Ghusl or do Tayammum on the box as some have suggested.
Muslims would normally gather on such occasions, embrace, shed tears and comfort one other. But due to the current strict rules of social distancing, we cannot do so, which is heart-breaking.
As believers, however, we ought to accept our lot with patience as the will of Allah, while doing what we can to the best of our ability.
In this spirit, I suggest:
1- If authorities allow only a few individuals to gather for the funeral prayer, it may be streamed live, and more friends & relatives can then join the prayer remotely, if they can join; alternatively, they can pray salatul al-ghaib (prayer in absentia) in their homes led by their own imam.
2- Mourners can come later on individually (or in small groups) to offer prayers by the grave
3- Comfort and send condolences via the phone, internet, social media etc.
4- Offer prayer and charity on behalf of the deceased.
5- Visit the grave to offer prayers after burial – the Prophet (peace be upon him) has set precedents for the same.
I pray to Allah to save us all from fatal diseases, shower us with His mercy and forgiveness and honor us with a peaceful death while testifying to the Oneness of Allah. I also pray that Allah gathers us all in the company of the prophets and the righteous ones in paradise.
Almighty Allah knows best.