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Muslim burials in Europe strained by virus lockdowns abroad

ZUIDLAREN, Netherlands (AP) — Mbarka Bouda would have preferred to be buried in her hometown in Morocco. But with her home country in a strict coronavirus lockdown, she was laid to rest at a new Muslim cemetery in this small town in the northeastern Netherlands.

“It was a good second choice,” said her grandson, Hassan Bouda, after he helped to lower Bouda's coffin into the sandy earth of the Riyad Al Jannah, or Garden of Paradise, cemetery last week. As soon as Bouda’s funeral was finished, another group of mourners arrived. And then another. Many wore face masks and gloves and adhered to the government’s social distancing guidelines as best they could, even while using wooden-handled shovels to pile earth on coffins.

As measures to stem the spread of the virus ground flights and close borders around the world, it's not only the living whose travels are being curtailed. For many Muslims in Europe, even if the coronavirus doesn't end their lives, it can affect their deaths because their bodies can't be flown home for burial.

It's an issue particularly for first-generation migrants who arrived in Europe in the 1960s and ‘70s in search of work and who often prefer to be buried where they were born. For Muslims from Morocco, it’s currently impossible since their country of birth closed its borders to both the living and the dead.

“This has become an issue because of corona,” said imam Hamid Belkasmi, who presided over Bouda’s funeral. ”Many Muslims find it hard to accept being buried in the Netherlands." But he added that the Association of Imams in the Netherlands has issued advice that it's acceptable for Muslims to be buried in the country.

Schiphol Mortuarium, which specializes in repatriating bodies from the Netherlands, is also feeling the effects. The mortuary usually facilitates the repatriation of about 2,000 bodies each year, including 500-600 to Morocco, said Hans Heikoop, director of the organization that runs the facility.

Now, bodies are being held in cold storage awaiting flights. They can remain in cold storage for weeks, or for months if they are embalmed, Heikoop said. With most passenger flights grounded, some coffins can make it onto cargo planes to countries like Turkey, but not Morocco.

Some families have even returned to pick up a body from the mortuary, fearing it would have to wait too long at the airport on the outskirts of Amsterdam. However, that option raises another concern for Muslims in countries like the Netherlands and France: Islamic custom calls for the dead to be buried in a grave where they can lie forever. But in both countries, perpetual concessions for graves are costly and increasingly hard to come by. In France, normal concessions last 15 years and must then be renewed or bodies are removed. This can pose problems for some Muslims, both financial, cultural and religious.

“This isn’t in conformity with Muslim tradition …. In Muslim tradition, when you bury someone it’s forever,” said Mohammed Moussaoui, president of the French Council for the Muslim Faith. In France — home to the largest Muslim population in Europe with an estimated 5 million — families have been hard-pressed to bury their dead, whose numbers have multiplied during the coronavirus crisis. There are a limited number of plots in French cemeteries reserved for Muslims since the majority are flown to their countries of origin, mainly Morocco and Algeria.

The Dutch imams association's advice on burials says that “the norm is a grave in perpetuity,” but if that isn't possible relatives should look for the longest possible time. Many Dutch graveyards have small Islamic sections, but there are just two Muslim cemeteries in the Netherlands that offer the guarantee of eternal rest.

That was part of the reason that Bouda's family drove 230 kilometers (145 miles) from Leiden to Zuidlaren to bury her in the cemetery that opened there this month, its parking lot next to a marijuana-selling coffee shop.

Bouda, who moved to the Netherlands in the early 1970s and worked in a variety of jobs while raising three children, died early in the holy month of Ramadan from anaemia at age 83. The new cemetery, its graves parallel to one another, facing Mecca, eased her family's concerns about her burial.

“People were stressed about where we could bury her,” Bouda's grandson Hassan said. “Now they are at peace with it. I think this is good for the Moroccan and Islamic community in the Netherlands.”

Associated Press writer Elaine Ganley in Paris contributed to this report.

Follow AP pandemic coverage at http://apnews.com/VirusOutbreak and https://apnews.com/UnderstandingtheOutbreak

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