Illustration by Rana Nikkholgh (www.ranazart.com)
Illustration by Rana Nikkholgh (www.ranazart.com)

Mohammed Imraz Asin, funeral director for the British Columbia Muslim Association, says that his association has purchased bulk cemetery space in Chilliwack in an effort to decrease the expense of funerals for their members.

Cemetery plots in Greater Vancouver start at between $10,000 and $25,000 and can exceed $300,000. By contrast, a basic cremation is priced around $1,000, an option that is not available to Imraz Asin and his members.

“It is a hardship for us because our core belief has no option for cremation,” says Imraz Asin.

He says that the average Muslim funeral service still costs between $5,000 and $7,000. This means that many are seeking savings by moving further out of the city. Imraz Asin says that the rate negotiated for the space in Chilliwack is a fraction of the prices found in Vancouver.

The rising costs of cemetery space pose a particular burden on communities for whom a traditional burial is important, and it is forcing many to re-evaluate the cultural significance of traditional funerals.

Culture versus Faith

Dignity Memorial, the largest network of funeral service providers in North America, provides an extensive online library with resources on various religious and cultural funeral rites.

According to Dignity, a Muslim funeral ceremony aims to bury the dead as soon as possible – usually within 24 hours – in order to free the soul from the body. The body is kept as close as possible to its natural state, so unless there are extenuating circumstances, there is no embalming, freezing or autopsy. In preparation for burial, family or other members of the community will wash and shroud the body, and the body is buried without a casket where permitted by local law. The deceased is laid in the grave on his or her right side, facing Mecca.

A proper burial is important to Imraz Asin and his members.

Another group with recognized procedures regarding burial rites is the Catholic Church.

The Archdiocese of Vancouver’s Guidelines for Burials and Funerals in the Catholic Church describes the Catholic funeral along three stages: the Vigil or wake, during which friends and family gather the day before the funeral to pray, often with the body embalmed and dressed in an open casket; the Funeral Mass, which must be celebrated at a church or other sacred place while a priest presides with the body present in a casket covered with a white pall; and the Rite of Committal, when the body is taken to its final resting place.

The belief in resurrection leads many to spare little expense on decorations, flowers, caskets and elaborate cemetery markers or statues. Such features easily add thousands to the total funeral costs.

Nonetheless, Rev. Ken Forster, pastor of Sacred Heart Church, does not believe that religion forces people to spend more money on funeral arrangements.

“I don’t think we need the best of coffins,” says Forster. “That’s opposed to Christian thinking. It doesn’t matter what happens to the body. It’s the person we are respecting.”

Cremation versus Burial

According to statistics from the Cremation Association of North America, Vancouver has the highest cremation rate of any city in North America – about 80 per cent. The top reason cited for the preference is to save money. Environmental impact and diminishing religious restrictions are also listed as influencing factors.

“A dead body is like shoes – once it’s gone, it’s finished,” says Fariborz Rahnamoon, President of the Zoroastrian Society of British Columbia.

Zoroastrianism, a religion and philosophy from ancient Iran, dictates that the corpse is a host for decay. In an effort not to pollute the “good” creation of the Earth, traditions have evolved around efforts to minimize the contamination of dead bodies on Earth. In ancient times, this included practices such as putting bodies in holes on a mountain or on the top of a tower where it would be eaten by vultures. Remaining bone fragments would later be collected and melted by acid.

Rahnamoon counts over 2,000 Zoroastrians in Vancouver. Many choose cremation for its apparent minimal impact on the Earth compared to burials.

The Zoroastrian approach may be too extreme for Forster, who also disagrees with the now-popular practice of scattering ashes in the ocean or wind.

“I always encourage people to have an actual place or repository for the [remains],” says Forster, who adds that it does not need to be at a Catholic cemetery as long as it is accessible to the family. The Gardens of Gethsemani, located in Surrey, is the only Catholic cemetery and mausoleum in the Lower Mainland.

“What’s important is a place where people can hold memories to remember the dead.”

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Reprinted from The Source Newspaper.