Q: Western-style "viewing" of deceased Muslims through open caskets at funeral homes is a practice that is fast becoming a norm among many immigrant Muslims in the U.S. In some instances, the casket is again opened for a "last view" at the burial site prior to internment. On other occasions, the body of the deceased Muslim is held for days awaiting the arrival of far-away relatives. What is the legality of these practices according to the shari'ah?

A: It is reported in the Sunan of Abu Dawud that Allah's Messenger (s.a.a.w), having seen the corpse of a companion said:

"I see clearly that Tallia has begun to undergo changes (brought on by death), so call the people to him and hurry in burying him, for it is not right that a Muslim corpse should remain imprisoned by his family."

Among other things, this hadith implies that the corpse should not be seen when it is undergoing a change that takes away from its normal appearance. And in concordance with another hadith that says:

"Allah will protect the faults of whoever protects the faults of another Muslim," the 'ulama' opine that the protection of the corpse from being gawked at is a duty of those in charge of burial from among the kinsfolk. Therefore, the concept of open viewing is generally considered alien to the spirit of Islam.

As for those who may say that modern cosmetic funerary preparations take care of the appearance, we say that the humble kafan (burial shroud) of a Muslim, and the prohibition of casketry all indicate a maximum of humility.

On the issue of cosmetics, such as: breaking bones etc. to fix other parts in a dead body -- all are considered forbidden. On the issue of holding the dead for far-away relatives: In Islam, we consider the wasting of money as a sin. The funeral should not be one of pomp and pageantry, and in most cases, the delaying is to make a social statement akin to pageantry. Imam Ahmad explained that the dead should only be kept as long as it is necessary to inform the people to have a gathering for the janaza. We may interpret that to mean the local community, or with today's quickness of travel, those who can make the janaza salah within the same day.

The practice of needlessly keeping the body in the funeral home is also an impingement on the rights of the inheritors (heirs of the deceased) for, according to the shari'ah law, the expenses of burial come from the estate of the deceased. A famous hadith says that when a child of Adam dies, all his deeds cease except for three:

  1. Ongoing permanent charity (masjid, hospital, etc.)
  2. Useful and beneficial knowledge
  3. A good offspring who makes du'a for the deceased.

The money that is spent in keeping the dead on ice and on plane fares could be better spent on charity. I am referring here to a case where there is overnight storage. In a case where a few hours are involved, such as interstate travel or travelling from London to New York, there is, Insha Allah, no problem, since the Prophet Muhammad (s.a.a.w) said that a Muslim should attend the funeral of another Muslim. Based on the Islamic prohibition against waste, most people should know that this applies when there is a minimum of burden involved. The above opinion is obviously quite general. An argument can be made that with today's technology, including cold storage and so on which ensures that the dead body does not smell etc., and wherein extremely close relatives cannot be there within a day, there is no harm in keeping the dead.

This argument does have some merit, although the expense of such storage may be a matter of concern. In such a case, one may surmise that if the nearest relatives of the deceased are all in agreement that the person coming is so important to them, then some leeway may be considered. The political theatre in Islam cannot be ignored too, and this is considered as special rather than general. A leader may be kept so that other world leaders and people of distinction may fulfill the international protocol that exists on such occasions.

Posted September 26, 1998. This question and answer was printed in the June 1994 issue of the Voice of Islam newsletter. (This newsletter is published by the Islamic Society of the Washington Area).