Muslim burials in Europe strained by virus lockdowns abroad

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Hassan Bouda, center rear in white, and imam Hamid Belkasmi, rear right in green, offer prayers after lowering the coffin of Mbarka Bouda into a grave at the Riyad Al Jannah, or Garden of Paradise, cemetery in Zuidlaren, northern Netherlands, Wednesday, May 6, 2020. As measures to stem the spread of the COVID-19 coronavirus grounded flights and closed borders around the world, even the dead are affected because their bodies cannot be flown home for burial in the places they were born. (AP Photo/Peter Dejong)

ZUIDLAREN – 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.