'We have a problem': New York Muslims don't know where to bury their loved ones
When Mohammad Abdullah’s father got sick last year, he expressed only one wish. He did not want his dead body to be flown to Pakistan to be buried. He wanted to lay in New York, where the wife and children he’d leave behind could visit him easily. And so when he died a month later, Abdullah stepped up to fulfill his father’s final wish.
But it wasn't easy.
New York has over one million Muslims, but no Muslim-only cemetery. There are cemeteries that provide plots for Muslims. But after the Covid-19 pandemic, the costs of cemetery plots skyrocketed and mosques are no longer being offered the opportunity to purchase mass grave plots for cheaper prices.
The Washington Memorial Park Cemetery is one of the biggest graveyards in New York that has plots for Muslims. According to a representative, a grave currently costs $9,500. People have the option to pay a ten, twenty, or thirty percent down payment and pay it back in 84 months. The representative told Middle East Eye the prices will go up soon, and that is what Muslims in New York are worried about.
When Muslims die in New York City, they most likely either get buried in Washington Memorial Park Cemetery or are taken to New Jersey, which has two Muslim-only cemeteries. The choice is between a costly grave that would take about 1.5 hours from Brooklyn to Long Island, or taking the drive to the neighbouring state, paying a toll every time.
Since Abdullah lives in Queens, he decided that driving to Long Island from time to time to offer prayers by his father’s grave would be much more convenient than driving to New Jersey.
“I sound morbid when I use the word ‘convenience’ in terms of burying the dead, but it’s true,” he said.
“I want to visit his grave as long as I am alive. I want my children to visit and my grandchildren as well one day. The cost was enormous. But he was my dad and I’d do anything for him.”
‘More people are dying’
Khurshid Anwar is the president of the Islamic Association of Long Island, located in Seldon which is about 105 kilometres east of New York City. He told MEE: “We have a problem.”
“Our population has increased about ten-fold in the past 10, 20 years. Which means more people are dying,” he said.
He said his mosque, along with many others, purchased hundreds of plots from the cemetery in New York. So when a person in their community would die, it would be a lot cheaper than if a person would go through the cemetery itself to purchase a plot. But after the pandemic and the high number of deaths during that time, the cemetery now only provides plots to individuals. The cost of one grave pre-Covid was around $4,000. It has now more than doubled.
“As a result, we have stopped giving graves to people who are still alive. Some people make reservations to be buried next to their loved ones. But we are discouraging people from doing that now,” he said.
His mosque is instead encouraging people to bury their loved ones in New Jersey. But that presents a problem for those who already have family members buried in New York, as they would insist on returning to that cemetery.
So why is this only an issue now? It’s because now, Muslims are deeply rooted in this country and this region.
He explained that when Muslims first came to New York, they didn't think about building a cemetery because they didn't expect to stay here and raise their kids. But now, that's changing with the new generations.
"Now that those people are getting old, we’re seeing more deaths. And these people don’t want to get buried back home. This is our land. Family members want their elders buried where they live now.
‘Nobody wants a cemetery’
It’s not easy to open a new cemetery in the state of New York, especially in New York City. There have been several organisations and individuals who have been trying for years. According to Scott Nimmo from the Islamic Burial and Shipping Service in New York, the main problem with opening a cemetery is that nobody wants it.
“Nobody wants a cemetery in their backyard. No town wants it,” he told MEE.
He explained that this has caused funeral homes in New York to be impacted greatly. People cannot afford a funeral. Funeral homes charge very little, he said, while the cemetery would charge three to four times as much with a funeral charge.
“There used to be 50 funeral homes in the city and now there are less than 20,” he said.
He said the state of New York allowed cemeteries to raise their prices, "where it's become ridiculous". And because of that, it's become harder for people to bury their loved ones. It is also difficult to open a new cemetery because of zoning laws. So what's the solution? New York Muslims should go to New Jersey, he said.
"But many people don't want to do that. So, there is no solution."
'At the end of the day, nothing will help you be buried except your deeds. What else are you taking with you?'
- Omar Hassan, funeral home
It all boils down to one question: Are you willing to pay $10,000 to bury your loved one in New York?
While the answer for Abdullah was yes, for Osman Hassan from the Islamic International Funeral Services, the answer is no.
“At the end of the day, nothing will help you be buried except your deeds. What else are you taking with you?” he said.
He said there has been much talk of expanding and creating Muslim sections in various non-Muslim cemeteries across the city and state. Just last month, he received a call from a cemetery in Staten Island, letting him know that they don’t object to a Muslim section but that they’d need to find money to invest in cleaning, construction, and burial.
A Muslim burial is cheaper than a Christian burial, for example. According to Hassan, for Christian burials, people require coffins - a box for burial made from metals, wood or fiberglass - which cost a lot of money, as well as headstones, embalming, and viewing of the body.
When Samuel Kingston buried his brother in New York City, he said the costs were potentially going up to $12,000. He explained that the more intricate the coffin, the pricier it was. The same is true for a headstone. He told MEE that it's one reason why people decide to take the cremation route because it ends up saving money by the thousands. For his brother's funeral, his family ended up spending about $9,000.
"Talking about death in this way hurts. But this is the reality. When our family members die, of course we are going to pick up the cost and do whatever we can to assure they are ready for the afterlife. But man is it difficult," he said.
"It's actually one reason why our elders start saving up money for their funerals when they are alive. But when it's someone young like my brother, it comes at you unexpectedly."
The process of burying a person also differs from religion, and Islam offers the simplest process. This is why from a business perspective, which at the end of the day is what a cemetery truly is, they aren’t making as much money from Muslim burials, which is why they are over-charging, various funeral directors told MEE.
“I think a solution is that the Muslim community needs to get together and do a fundraiser and collect a lot of money so we can open a Muslim cemetery that is affordable,” he said. “It’s not easy. And it’s a lot of money. It also requires getting approval from the state and getting politicians on board. But it will be worth it.”