About four years ago, Adil Imdad, an environmental and geotechnical engineer in St. Louis, set out to become an expert on death.
Imdad was interested in helping Muslims in the region bury their loved ones.
So in 2011, Imdad enrolled at St. Louis Community College, graduating the following year with a certificate of specialization in funeral directing.
About six months ago, in a small office space tucked behind Daar-ul-Islam Masjid in Ballwin, otherwise known as the Islamic Foundation of Greater St. Louis, Imdad opened the area’s first Muslim funeral home. So far, Imdad has coordinated about 42 funerals.
As the Muslim population of the U.S. has grown, so has the need for Muslim-specific services such as funeral homes and cemeteries. According to a 2011 survey, the number of mosques in the U.S. has grown 74 percent since 2000.
In the St. Louis area, where there were once a few mosques, there are now about 27 of varying sizes. Faizan Syed, executive director of the Council on American-Islamic Relations in St. Louis, estimates that about 85,000 Muslims live in the region.
One reason for the jump is the influx of Bosnian Muslims to St. Louis in the 1990s. In 2011, the Bosnian Islamic Center in the Lemay area of south St. Louis County bought a large plot of land in the old Odd Fellows Cemetery, making it the first Muslim cemetery in the St. Louis area. Imdad is currently working to secure another 40 acres of land for Muslim burials.
Muslim groups in Kansas City, Columbia and Jefferson City maintain small funeral facilities, often inside mosques, for washing bodies of the deceased. But until now, St. Louis-area Muslims have been forced to rely largely on non-Muslim funeral services to guide them through the process of death.
With the help of several funeral directors and a crew of volunteers, Imdad is now able to assist, at little to no cost, families who have lost loved ones.
Imdad lives near the mosque with his wife and two daughters and also serves as the only Muslim chaplain for St. Louis County police.
Imdad says his interest in funeral homes can be attributed to his desire to get “ahead in the heavens.”
“There’s a lot of good deeds in this business,” Imdad said.
According to the latest figures from the National Funeral Directors Association, the median cost of a funeral in the U.S. ranges from $7,000 to $8,000. That cost can be prohibitive for Muslims, many of whom are newly arrived immigrants and refugees.
Families are still required to pay, usually between $1,150 and $4,500, for the cemeteries they use, though the Islamic Foundation of Greater St. Louis has established a fund to help defray those costs.
“We’re not here to make money,” Imdad, who immigrated to the U.S. from Pakistan and sports a large beard, said one recent afternoon in his office.
Muslims who seek more burial options in the United States are following in the steps of other religions.
Gary Laderman, a religion professor at Emory University in Atlanta, and author of “Rest in Peace: A Cultural History of Death and the Funeral Home in Twentieth-Century America,” said that in the latter half of the 19th century, just as the funeral industry was taking shape after the Civil War, American Jews began to build their own branch of the business.
“It was about how they could control their own dead and ensure they were buried according to their ideals and expectations,” said Laderman. “And more recently we’ve seen other communities producing their own funeral directors, producing their own professionals or volunteers, who are increasingly involved in the disposition of their dead.”
Experts say logistical problems can arise when Muslims or Jews are forced to rely on outside funeral homes for services.
Islam and Judaism share many ritual elements in the preparation and interment process. To avoid the mutilation of the body, embalming and cremation, for instance, are generally forbidden. And bodies should be buried before sunset on the day the person died, or as soon as possible. The timing often creates scheduling problems for funeral homes that are not dedicated specifically to Muslims or Jews.
Family members typically prepare a Muslim body for burial.
“Honestly, it gives you so much closure,” Imdad said.
At Daar-ul-Islam Masjid, loved ones who choose not to participate in the washing can sit in a waiting area and read or listen to a recording of the Koran. Imdad also keeps a list of volunteers in case relatives are unavailable to help.
The first task is to cover the body with a sheet and cut off the clothing so the the body can be washed. Men and women are usually forbidden from washing the opposite sex. The body is then wrapped in a white cotton cloth, called kafan. Women are wrapped five times while men are wrapped only three times.
Once the body has been prepared, it is often buried in a wooden air tray with the face or body facing Mecca. Prayers are said either at the mosque or the cemetery and last only a few minutes.
Although Muslims believe martyrs go straight to heaven, Yvonne Haddad, a professor of Islamic history at Georgetown University, says others who are buried undergo a kind of spiritual questioning. As a precursor of what’s to come on judgment day, only those who have been good avoid the punishment of the tomb.
The opening of the brand-new facilities, however, has had its challenges.
Some have accused the center of failing to serve Shiites, the second largest denomination within Islam.
Although Imdad says they’ve performed two funerals for Shiite families, controversy arose when one of those families was recently denied a request to have a Shiite imam lead the funeral prayers.
Imam Asif Umar, the first native St. Louisan to lead Daar-ul-Islam, said that “our policy has always been that we accommodate all Muslims.”