Muslims ritualising death – social narratives

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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.

My field research in Venlo – interviews, conversations and observations − involved a wide variety of Muslims. Within the various communities we found that certain narratives concerning death rites kept recurring. Our research data yielded many stories about how and where death rites are (or should be) practised. There are two main themes: (fear of) cremation and (the quest for) a place of burial. When confronted with death people turn their personal experiences into stories. They show us how these events raise questions and issues. The narratives that evolve present worldviews of Muslims in Venlo and how they deal with the dominant culture in their particular context. Many personal stories dwell on the theme of cremation, which is seen as typically Dutch:

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)

The other main theme is eternal graves that are not common in the Netherlands. Narratives on this topic often contain horrible details of the way graves are emptied after some time:

Can I ask you something? You are Dutch and you might know about it… I hear so many stories about the way the Dutch handle their deceased. Is it true that they empty the graves after some time? I heard they empty the graves with a shovel and then all bodies are dumped in one place…. Or do they burn them? It is like a horror movie! If it is like this, it would be very difficult for me to be buried here in Venlo when I die… In Morocco this would never happen! Impossible! So it might be safer to be buried there… (Personal interview 2011)

Some narratives deal with the question of where you want to be buried in a single phrase:

 Let me be short on this: when I get buried I prefer ezan  [Islamic call for prayer] to church bells. (Personal conversation 2010)

Financial considerations were often mentioned to explain the choice (or wish) to be repatriated after death:

 I checked what it would cost to be buried in the Netherlands, and I was shocked by the prices… Not so much the price for the funeral but how much it costs to be buried in Dutch soil! You only pay for ten years or so and then your relatives have to renew the grave rights, and pay again! I know that it also costs a lot of money to transport my corpse to Morocco but the grave is for free… (Personal conversation 2010)

We have funeral insurance through our mosque [Diyanet]. They arrange for us to be buried in Turkey when we die, all costs are covered… For this we pay something like 50 euros each year, for me and my wife and for the children that still live at home. I think it is a good deal… (Personal conversation 2011)

The foregoing narratives reflect a kind of mistrust of their present context in Venlo and they oppose ritual practice in the Netherlands. There are also narratives that deal mainly with the glorious context of origin:

 Of course I want to return to Turkey when I die… or maybe not so much to Turkey in general, but to my village. I love that place! I have such good memories of my childhood there. It is surrounded by beautiful mountains and stunning views and all my relatives are buried there… It is my personal choice. (Personal conversation 2011)

The narratives in circulation are evaluated (Labov, 1972) by the receivers and may lead to counter-narratives that oppose these stories in some way. For example, there are narratives told by Muslims who don’t have a choice in where to be buried due to the situation in their home countries:

 I respect the rules the prophet Mohammed has given me, they are a guideline in my life. When I die I want to be buried in that place – like our religion prescribes, like the prophet was buried where he died. I have visited the Muslim cemetery in Blerick, it is not a bad place at all! The views from the new Maas Boulevard [a new shopping centre in Venlo on the river Maas; Blerick is situated on the other bank] are splendid! No, I am just joking a bit. Being buried in Venlo will be fine… (Personal interview 2010)

My brother died and was buried here in Venlo… and I can tell you, I was very content with the help we received from our funeral insurance. They really did a good job! First I was a bit worried because Nationale Nederlanden is a real Dutch company and we had an Islamic funeral, but it worked out fine. They made all the arrangements, only the religious things we organised ourselves. They even paid for the food we served to all the people staying in our house on the days after the funeral. Now I tell all my Muslim friends about it … to take out insurance in the Netherlands, it is so much easier… (Personal interview 2010)

These narratives are numerous and they seem to crop up over and over again. Of course, the stories are not repeated verbatim; they are adapted and altered in accordance with personal experience and the circumstances of the context they interact with. Although they originate from personal experiences, conveying personal thoughts, the narratives are recognised by others living in similar circumstances. We also see how narratives interact and are often triggered by incidents reported in various media. They challenge people to react and express an opinion about it, resulting in storytelling.


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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