Pertinent issues relating to Muslim death and burial challenges were raised at a broad stakeholders meeting hosted by the Western Cape Muslim Undertakers Forum at the weekend. Held at the Darul Islam Boys campus in Surrey Estate, the conference brought together Muslim cemetery boards, undertakers, death registrars, burial societies, ghasiels and ghasielahs (toekamanies) and hearse drivers to provide a complete understanding of afterlife care. Also, in attendance were representatives from the City of Cape Town’s Health, Recreation and Parks Department, Environment, Department of Home Affairs and Forensic services.
Amongst the concerns raised were the delays in janaza proceedings and the fundamental rights of the deceased. In October 2017, the Muslim community faced a crisis when the Western Cape’s forensic pathology services (FPS) experienced a massive backlog of bodies that required post-mortems. A Muslim must be buried within 24 hours of a death and during this time, many families were adversely affected by the long waiting period. At one point, the FPS had a backlog of 176 bodies waiting for autopsies.
Organiser Ebrahim Solomon, the chairperson of the Western Cape Muslim Undertakers Forum, said many other concerns were raised by those who must deal with the complex realities of burying the dead.
“A couple of weeks ago, I went to a janazah where the family used their own toekamanie (person that washes the deceased). When I went to the collect the body, it was soaked in blood. It is unIslamic for me to bury the body in this way and it is against South Africa legislation. The body had to be re-kafaned (shrouded) before I could bury it. The toekamanie is a learned person in the community, but there is no one to police this person. So we need to do something to ensure these things are regulated,” he said.
The City’s Head of cemetery management Susan Brice said partnerships with the Muslim community became important and the council then looked to the MJC to consider how it can accommodate the Muslim communities they serve. In 2007, the city council found that most of the Muslim private cemeteries were reaching their capacity.
While Muslim burial spaces are re-used, it became clear that the City was unable to meet some of the needs of the growing Muslim community. The City made a commitment in 2013 to draft a service delivery agreement with the MJC to ensure that every new cemetery would accommodate the amount of people in proportion to the community they served. The city then embarked on an extension of the Khayelitsha, Klip Road in Grassy Park and Welmoed cemeteries. In addition, a new cemetery was opened in Delft and Khayelitsha, with an allotment for Muslim burial.
“The community’s rights to a dignified burial is important. Our by-law protects those rights and ensures that any religious group that asks for a religious requirement that is reasonable and attainable, the City should find a way to accommodate those customs,” she said.
“We want our communities to have equal opportunities to a dignified burial.”
Health regulations at national government level changed in 2014 which means that new cemeteries and extensions to existing cemeteries may not be than 500 metres from habitable space. That means that the City faces many difficulties for future burial spaces.
“Every new cemetery needs a buffer of a half of a kilometre all the way around before it is anywhere close to a place of residence. In every case where we want to develop cemeteries, we are forced to get an exemption of that regulation. This is regardless if you are a private cemetery or municipal entity.”
Solomon said the conference was a first step towards improving burial services for all Muslims in the province.
“The speakers welcomed this forum as it means we can structure a body to deal with death-related matters,” he said.