Islamic Relief has worked with the World Health Organisation (WHO) to contribute to guidance on how those who have lost their lives to Ebola should be buried with dignity.

Body retrieval teams were tasked with collecting bodies safely to reduce the rate of infection, but had no guidance on how to treat bodies correctly from a faith perspective; it meant they were not being buried according to faith requirements and communities had become aggrieved about how their loved ones were being treated.

It also meant some families were disinterring bodies in order to give them a proper burial. With the virus still virulent after death, this contributed considerably to the spread of Ebola. WHO decided to produce guidelines to ensure faith needs were being properly met by the body retrieval teams.

Atallah Fitzgibbon, policy and strategy manager at Islamic Relief, said: “There was a lack of awareness from the retrieval teams about how to meet the faith needs of communities, and there was a lack of awareness by communities on how to safely tend to the bodies of their loved ones.

“In Islam, the body should be washed, shrouded, the funeral prayer said, and the body buried facing towards Mecca. This is an important ritual that is a rite of passage for entry to the next world so families were becoming very upset when this was not being done. ”

Dry ablutions

Together with Rehanah Sadiq, who used to work for Islamic Relief and is now a Muslim chaplain who also advises the NHS on burial practice for bodies that cannot have a standard burial, and one of our faith scholars Dr Abdullah Juda’i, we were able to put together recommendations for the WHO.

“The WHO was very grateful,” said Atallah Fitzgibbon. “The advice included how to replace the Ghusl – or washing – with dry ablutions. The advice to body retrieval teams is to have a Muslim representative in each team who would be able to understand how to deal with the body from an Islamic perspective.

“The dry ablution would see them passing their hands over the face and hands of the deceased while wearing their protective suits. We’ve advised that bodies then be placed on a white cloth then wrapped before being placed in a body bag and buried facing Mecca.

“It is also important to inform the family of what the procedure is and why they can’t wash the body, otherwise they could be distressed. We’ve advised that the WHO makes an advice card on the procedures and dangers that can be handed to families. They also need to ensure it’s supported, approved and possibly even added to by local Muslim officials. There’s a need to respect local custom and teaching.”

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