An Islamic Cemetery in Birmingham

By Jeremy Borman, Corey McDaniels, and MaryGrace Mills

Just six miles west of downtown Birmingham off I-20/59 is Oakland Cemetery. It was established in 1884 as the church yard of Oakland Methodist Episcopal Church, South. As time has gone on more sections of the cemetery have opened up such as the “The Garden of Peace” made for veterans, as well as an Italian section created to serve the large number of Italian immigrants moved to Birmingham. A newer section, the Muslim Garden, has continued the cemetery’s century-old tradition of hospitality. The Muslim Garden was established in 2004 and is operated and managed by the Birmingham Islamic Society.  It is on the east side of the cemetery, enclosed by a fence with trees nearby it.

On this satellite image of Oakland Cemetery the Muslim Garden is the triangular area on the east side. Photo: screengrab of Google Map with added text.

Birmingham Islamic Society 

The Birmingham Islamic Society is Birmingham’s largest organization for people of the Islamic faith. It was started by University of Alabama at Birmingham students who had initially organized as the Muslim Student Association. The Birmingham Islamic Society provides all sorts of services for Muslims which includes funeral services at the Oakland Cemetery, marriage services, prayer services (at the Homewood Masjid, Hoover Crescent Islamic Center, and West Side Masjid), school programs for children at Islamic Academy of Alabama, Weekend Islamic School,  LIMS Academy, and various empowerment programs for Islamic women. 

The Cemetery

In order to protect the privacy of the Muslim Garden, visitors to this section need to contact the owners in advance. The other sections of the cemetery are open to the public. This includes a veterans memorial, but the Muslim section is somewhat hidden, though it is visible from the neighborhood next to it. The view is a bit obstructed since there are trees covering the upper part of the garden. But through the clearing you will be able to see the graves surrounded by the red dirt.

A sign with words from the Quran and a saying from the Prophet Muhammad greets visitors to the Muslim Garden. Photo: David Bains, July 2021.

Islamic Burial Practices

Typically burial services for Muslims occur as soon as possible after one’s death. This can range between twenty-four hours to three days after death. Arrangements with the Birmingham Islamic Society can be made 365 days a year without any barring from holidays, although all burials will take place during daylight and no burials will happen during or after sunsets. In between each grave is a rock path where people are able to access the graves without accidentally stepping on them. Graves are put into rows to prevent any sort of machinery from going over or digging into the graves. They are arranged in a very organized pattern facing Mecca. 

Washing and Clothing Process for the Body

When it is time for the burial process to begin, it starts with the washing of the body by those that are nearest to the deceased. There are a few important rules when it comes to the washing of the bodies. Men usually prepare only other men for burial. If a man washes the body of a woman, her clothes must remain on during the washing. When the body is washed the clothes are not always taken off of it. Depending on the instructions given by the deceased prior to death, or by a closed confidant, they can be purposely washed through their clothes. Washing is usually done in odd number repetitions and is commonly done first with regular water, then water seeped with Acacia leaves, and finally with water mixed with camphor (a powder that is made from the bark and wood of the camphor laurel, an evergreen tree). It is customary for the head to be usually washed with camphor and a thin cloth to cover the privates.

Respectful care for the body post-mortem is very important. Oftentimes sores, scars, and injuries are washed very thoroughly with water as well as if strangers are present the body will not be washed but rather have sand poured over it. On the subject of clothes they can vary greatly from person to person. Oftentimes normal clothes with little to no significance are used, however there are some special circumstances. For example, the prophet Muhammad was buried in three white pieces of clothing because he gave his loincloth to the woman who washed his child and his shirt to the Adbullah b. Ubai. Improvisations are often made as well. If a cloth or a particular piece of clothing doesn’t cover everything that it is required to, reeds will be utilized to cover those parts.  

Tone and Rules for the Funeral  

On the procession of the body, there is little room for theatrics. A level of seriousness similar to that common in American Protestant funerals is maintained. The men attending the funeral should be the carriers of the funeral bier. The pace of the carrying should be very quick with not a single peep being made during the whole process.

Historically many Muslims have taught that women should not attend a funeral because they may display an intense emotional reaction such as wailing. The wisdom of this teaching is debated, and it should be noted that often women can be present at the funerals of male family members. Prior to burial the community gathers together to pray to God for him to have mercy on the deceased.  

Transportation and Service Process  

Once all of the prayers have finished the body is then transported to the burial site. The grave for the deceased body should be perpendicular to Mecca and the body should be placed on its right side, facing the holy city. Then wood or stones will be placed so that the body will not be touching the dirt. Once the body is being lowered down the congregation will then say another prayer. Every mourner will then get the chance to place three handfuls of soil into the grave. Each funeral burial service will typically last around thirty to sixty minutes. The imam will include prayers and readings from the Quran while the burial is taking place. All attendees are required to dress formally and modestly.

This sattelite photo of the Muslim Garden shows that the graves are oriented toward Mecca. That is, to the northwest, since the qibla or direction of Mecca is figured as shortest direction of the round surface of the globe. Photo: Screengrab of Google Map.

  

Conclusion  

After a funeral has taken place guests will bring food offerings to the mourners’ home. The grieving period lasts about forty days although for a widow it is a little different. Widows are to stay in their husband’s home and to wear black clothes. They must also avoid any sort of contact with men that they could potentially marry. Their grieving period lasts about four months and ten days. Both seem to be a very short turn around in comparison to the very long grieving process in our culture. Which might span a couple months to a lifetime. Although the short grieving period is similar to very strict proceedings that goes into a Muslim funeral. The short time given to set arrangements, the burial service lasting at most an hour, and the relatively short grieving process gives an idea of how seated in tradition the funerals can be. 

Muslim Garden
Address: 1140 Warrior Road, Birmingham AL 35218
Established: 2004
Affiliation: Birmingham Islamic Society

Works Cited  

Bhamwiki. “Birmingham Islamic Society.” Accessed October 29, 2021. https://www.bhamwiki.com/w/Birmingham_Islamic_Society.  

“BIS History.” BIS. Accessed October 29, 2021. https://www.bisweb.org/history/#.  

Funeral Partners. 2020. Muslim Funeral Services. Funeral Partners. April 23, 2020 https://www.funeralpartners.co.uk/help-advice/arranging-a-funeral/types-of-funerals/muslim-funeral-services/.  

“Oakland Cemetery.” Bhamwiki. Accessed October 29, 2021. https://www.bhamwiki.com/w/Oakland_Cemetery.  

Tritton, A. S.. 1938. “Muslim Funeral Customs.” Bulletin of the School of Oriental Studies, University of London 9 (3): 653–61. “Birmingham Islamic Society.” 

Jeremy Borman ’25, Corey McDaniels ’23, and MaryGrace Mills ’25 were students in Introduction to World Religions in Samford University’s Department of Biblical and Religious Studies in fall 2021.  

Published November 29, 2021

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