The high amount of coronavirus casualties in Italy has compounded the already short supply of Muslim burial spots.

“I have not seen my sons for the past 10 days: I leave at 6 am and I am back home after 9pm. Sometime I get calls at night, I work all night and then I go straight to the office, I take a shower there, and I start my day all over.” 

When, 7 years ago, Tallal Khalid, an insurance broker, decided to open a Muslim funeral agency in Brescia, Northern Italy, he likely would not have seen this coming.

In mid-March, Italy's coronavirus death toll (now standing at 12,.428) surpassed China’s, where the virus first emerged in December. 

Khalid lives in a small town in Brescia province, and the cities of Bergamo and Brescia, are at the heart of the outbreak. In Bergamo, the coffins are so abundant, the army has been called to take them from warehouses for cremation. But when it comes to the bodies of Muslims, there is almost no place for them to go.

Khalid moved to Italy from Morocco 32 years ago. He was always involved with the local Muslim community, he says. 

The Moroccan community in Italy stands at around half a million individuals and is the biggest non-European Union community living in the country, after Romanians and Albanians. Many of them have a permit to be in Italy, but may not yet be citizens. Around 90,000 live in the Lombardy region, the area most severely hit by the current outbreak.

As there are only 58 Muslim cemeteries in the entire country, finding a place to bury their relatives is not a new problem for the Italian Muslim community. 

But before the coronavirus outbreak, most of them were opting for repatriation: “I used to cover all Italy, and I used to get on average 2 to 3 calls per week:  99.9 percent of the people were asking us to organise their dead relative’s repatriation,” says Khalid. 

Repatriation wasn’t ever much of a challenge, until a few weeks ago when cargo flight carrying a few bodies from Italy to Casablanca, via Istanbul, was blocked by Moroccan authorities, and the bodies returned.

Now, the borders are closed, even for the dead. 

Recently, a woman originally from North Macedonia, died in a small town near Brescia, Pisogne. The family got in touch with a man who promised to help them repatriate her body, but that proved impossible and the man just disappeared.

According to Italian regulations, a person can be buried only in the municipality or residence where they died. In Pisogne, where the woman lived and died, there is no Muslim cemetery. The family struggled to find a place to bury her and ended up stuck at home with her body in a coffin for a week.

Italians attending any sort of burial ceremony must stand at least one meter apart and avoid any contact with each other.
Italians attending any sort of burial ceremony must stand at least one meter apart and avoid any contact with each other. (Reuters)

Finally, thanks to UCOII, the Union of Islamic communities in Italy, Brescia municipality agreed to grant her a place in the local cemetery, where a small area is reserved for Muslims.

It was Khalid who was called at night to transport the coffin from her house to the cemetery: “I drove one hour to get there, and we worked until 3AM, to take the coffin downstairs from the third floor. You can't imagine, the whole situation was very hard,” Khalid says, “We took her to the warehouse at the cemetery and after two days she was eventually buried. But they made it clear it was an exception, as they have only 10 places left and they want to keep them for Brescia’s residents.”

In Islam, the dead should be buried as soon as possible, and cremation is forbidden. The body is first cleansed in lukewarm water (“ghusl” in Arabic), and then wrapped in a simple plain cloth. But even that had to change, to prevent the virus from spreading further. 

At the beginning of the outbreak, UCOII disseminated a leaflet among the community with updated prescriptions regarding funeral rituals. If a person died from Covid-19, UCOII recommended, no ghusl or Tayammum (the ritual purification using purified sand or dust) should be performed: everybody should follow what health professionals at the hospitals or the morgue recommend them to do. 

For the Muslim migrant community, the collective prayer, or salat al janaaza, is often felt as a crucial moment, but for now the most important thing is to stay at home, and to avoid even funeral gatherings. Only a few persons are allowed at the cemetery, and they should stand at least one meter apart, avoiding any touching or hugging.

Red tape 

“As soon as the virus spread, we immediately decided to close all the Islamic centers and mosques, and to suspend all our activities, to avoid gatherings,” says Yassine Lafram, president of UCOII. 

“It was not only a matter of responding to the Interior Ministry decrees, but also to show our sense of belonging and our civic sense.” 

UCOII, recently invited the members of the entire Italian Muslim community, that they estimate to be 2 million people, to donate blood, as many hospitals across the country were suddenly facing a shortage, due to restrictions on movement that made it harder for some people to go to the hospital. 

UCOII was directly notified of the death of at least 60 members of the Muslim community in Bergamo and Brescia, “but the actual number is for sure higher,” Lafram says.

“We were already aware of the shortage of Muslim cemeteries in Italy,” he adds, “There are specific regulatory plans and very tight rules, so in general it is not easy to open a new cemetery. There are a few upstanding municipalities that responded to this demand before the crisis. The others are now paying the price of their political choice."

In Azzano San Paolo, a small town near Bergamo, lies one of the few entirely Muslim cemeteries. It was open ten years ago and they came to an agreement with the municipality to allow non-residents to be buried there. 

Medical personnel wearing protective face masks helps patients inside the Spedali Civili hospital in Brescia, Italy March 13, 2020.
Medical personnel wearing protective face masks helps patients inside the Spedali Civili hospital in Brescia, Italy March 13, 2020. (Reuters)

Wahid Arid, who runs the funeral agency, has never faced anything like this before. 

“I can not sleep at night,” he says, “I go out and pray to be able to come back and see my family again.” 

Wahid was used to, on average, burying one person a month. “We buried 6 people two days ago, today three, tomorrow two, and then again on Monday and Tuesday. All of them are Covid. We have 300 places at the cemetery in total. At this pace we will be full in less than a month.”

UCOII published a list on their website of the 58 cemeteries that have an area for Muslims, with phone numbers, and also a list of specialised funeral agencies, like Arid’s and Khalid’s. They also started a WhatsApp channel to share information and gather reports from community members.

Lafram says they are doing their best to mediate with local authorities, and in Milan the mayor recently agreed to open the Muslim area of the local cemetery to all the residents in the province. 

“We are all in this together: there are a lot of Muslim doctors, many of whom were retired, who are now on the frontline,” says Lafram, “Some of them got sick and some even died: they are heroes who should be honoured together with all the Italian doctors who are facing this emergency.”

Khalid bought masks, gloves and protective suits and never entered a house or a hospital morgue without wearing them. 

“It is the doctors and us, who are directly in touch with dead people. And many of my colleagues got sick; some died, people with families, people I knew very well,” he says. 

He also fears for his family and decided to sleep in a separate apartment. 

“We just want to get over this and forget everything.” 

Yet, even if he had known, he would still have decided to do this job, he says: “It is our duty and I feel honoured to do this. In the end, as we say, we are in the hands of Allah.”