Muslims ritualizing death – on cremation

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I have studied how a variety of Muslims ritualise death in a small-town context in the Netherlands (2009-2012). Through observations and in depth interviews I gained access to peoples’ dynamic death practices in a context of migration. Some vignettes are presented here.

Islamic eschatology and the idea that an intact body is needed on the day of resurrection make the rather widespread custom of cremation in the Netherlands hard to digest for most Muslims. The flames of the crematorium are also often associated with the flames of hell. To most Muslims cremation is a horror scenario, as this West African Muslim explains:

My first experience with death in Venlo was when a Dutch friend died. He had cancer and I was invited to the house after he passed away. He was laid on a bier in the living room and I was a bit shocked, because I am not used to this. I found it quite bizarre that people were sitting there, talking and drinking coffee next to my friend’s body. The next day there was a service in church; I also spoke some words to express my friendship with him. That was nice. And then I was invited to the cemetery, or at least I thought I was. Something happened I wasn’t prepared for… We ended up at the crematorium. Although I didn’t see the actual fire, I was deeply shocked and couldn’t sleep for weeks! How can you do this to a person you love? I don’t understand the Dutch people! This experience made me think about my own funeral, as I am all alone here in Venlo … What will happen to me? I really don’t want to be cremated. So I made arrangements with funeral insurance that, in case of death, my body will be repatriated to Guinea and my relatives will take care of everything. Even the washing and the shrouding I want to be done there by people I trust. (Personal interview 2010)

A few years ago one of our fellow countrymen died unexpectedly. He was a young guy and no one expected him to die! And as he has no relatives in this country it was very difficult for us, his friends here in Venlo, to decide what we should do. We were very, very worried when it became clear that someone from the municipality was in charge…. They have no clue how we deal with our deceased loved ones! They have no clue at all! We were so worried that they would cremate him. That is what they do! I heard it is cheaper to cremate than to bury a dead person – so the choice is easy for them. If it is cheaper, the Dutch will do it… And of course there is not much space in this country, you are so many! And probably it is necessary to burn your deceased otherwise there will be too many corpses in the cemeteries. In Islam it is forbidden to cremate a body … I find it so harsh… You know, my relatives are not here, so I worry about what will happen if I die. Will they cremate me? I have to make arrangements that this will not happen! (personal interview 2011)

In almost every interview or conversation the issue of cremation automatically came up, always filling people with dread, with the remarkable exception of Shukri from Indonesia:

I married a Dutch man 15 years ago and moved from Java to Venlo. My two youngest children from a previous marriage came with me, two others stayed in Indonesia. That makes me part of two countries now and makes it complicated when I die. Although I am very much aware of the Islamic objections to cremation, I see the division of my ashes among my children as my only option. They have to take care of me after I die. But they should not keep my ashes in their house; they have to bury me so I can return to the earth like     Islam prescribes. Allah will understand that I am in two countries and that is why I have to take these quite drastic measures. What choice do I have? (Personal interview 2010)


Interested? The full research is available at Lit Verlag: Muslims Ritualising Death in the Netherlands. Death rites in a small town context.



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