Explainer: How Muslim burial rites equalise everyone at death

President Uhuru Kenyatta pays his last respects to the late former Cabinet Minister Simeon Nyachae at his gravesite during his burial at his Nyosia home, Kisii County on February 15, 2021. [PSCU, Standard]

On Monday 15, February 2021, two men who played key roles in Kenyan politics were laid to rest.

One, 89-year-old Simeon Nyachae who died on February 1, 2021. The other, Garissa Senator Yusuf Haji aged 80 who died in the early hours of Monday, February 15, 2020. Both died in two different hospitals in Nairobi.

These two men belonged to the elite political class of Kenya having worked as career civil servants under Kenya’s second President Daniel Moi and later becoming influential politicians in their communities.

Nyachae buried in Kisii while Haji was buried in Nairobi

While alive, both Nyachae and Haji enjoyed the trappings of power. In death, it was a different story.

Nyachae received a befitting send-off as we describe funerals of prominent people in Kenya.  His remains had been preserved in the morgue for 14 days and later flown to Kisii, his final resting place where the final rites were conducted by the Adventist church.

On the other hand, Senator Haji was buried in less than 24 hours as per Muslim burial customs. Despite his stature, he was buried like every other Muslim - it didn’t matter who he was while alive. 

What happens when a Muslim dies

The two funerals got Kenyans talking. At one point, #LangataMuslimCemetry was trending on Twitter.

Mohammed Hersi, a hotelier and vocal commentator on social media broke down what happens when a Muslim dies.

In Islam, the dead should be buried as soon as possible. The body is first cleaned using lukewarm water and then wrapped in several layers of plain cotton sheets.

Soon after, there is a congregational prayer service called the Janazah, during which mourners pray for the deceased’s soul and ask God to pardon his/her sins.

“After death, ghusl, a mandatory ritual purification of the body is conducted either at home or even at some mosque before the performance of ritual and Janazah prayer,” says Hersi.

According to Muslim burial rites, a body is rarely transported instead, one is buried where they have passed away and as quickly as possible.

Even for public figures like the late senator, the burial should take place where death (maut) happens. That is why Senator Haji was buried in Nairobi and not Garissa.

Burial dictated by prayer times

Muslims burials are mainly dictated by prayers times. Muslims pray five times a day.

Fajr at 5am, Dhuhur at 1pm, Asr 4pm, Maghrib 6.30pm and Isha 8pm.

Hersi says most of the burial prayers coincide with the 1pm or 4pm prayers for various reasons for example to allow immediate family members to arrive.

Muslims rarely bury their dead in the evening or at night, unless a person died in an accident in which case the departed is buried as quickly as possible.

President Uhuru Kenyatta during the burial ceremony of Garissa Senator Yusuf Haji at Lang'ata Cemetery in Nairobi County. Also present are Deputy President William Ruto and former Prime Minister Raila Odinga on February 15, 2021. [PSCU, Standard]

No coffins

The remains are wrapped in a simple plain cloth (the Kafan) which costs less than Sh500. After that, instead of a coffin, the deceased is transported to the mosque in a Janaza that is returned after use and reused by another family.

The Janaza is taken to the mosque and placed at the back awaiting the normal prayers.

After the normal prayers are over, worshipers are informed about the presence of the body of a departed brother or sister and requested to remain behind.

It is considered a blessing to take part in such a ceremony even if you were not known to the departed. At that point, many people especially the youth help to ferry the body to the front.

Before the body leaves for its final resting place, the family led by the eldest son and the Imam ask if there is anyone who owed the departed anything.

If the deceased owed anyone anything, the son or immediate family male members are expected to take responsibility for the debt.

After that, final prayers led by the Imam are conducted and the entourage leaves for the cemetery.

No women allowed at the gravesite

At the graveyard, immediate family members preferably sons and brothers to the deceased go inside the grave.

According to Islam burial customs, women are not allowed at the gravesite. If they attend, they can only watch from a distance.

After arriving at the cemetery, the body is removed from the Janaza and placed inside a grave that has a mould of mud which acts as a pillow where the head of the deceased is placed. Additionally, the body faces the right side towards Mecca.

Wooden planks are used to enclose where the body is placed and if there is no wood, concrete slabs can be used.

Once done, family members step out of the grave and soil is poured in.

This is followed by a quick sermon that can take five to 10 minutes and the ceremony ends.

No speeches

There are no speeches or protocols at the mosque or the burial site regardless of the status of the deceased.

 “At the mosque and burial site all are equal,” says Hersi.