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June 21, 2012: Dr. Suleiman Gardee poses in front of the new Muslim cemetery in Ottawa. (Dave Chan/Dave Chan)
June 21, 2012: Dr. Suleiman Gardee poses in front of the new Muslim cemetery in Ottawa. (Dave Chan/Dave Chan)

MULTICULTURALISM

New Muslim cemeteries to give urgent last rites Add to ...

Soon after Suleiman Gardee’s mother died, as he and his relatives grieved, the family tried to arrange a burial for the 92-year-old. “In Muslim tradition, you bury within 24 hours max,” he said. “Otherwise, it’s not a good thing.”

There was already a plot arranged when the family doctor’s mother died in 2010, beside where his father was buried in a multi-faith Ottawa cemetery. But she died on the Saturday of Labour Day weekend, when the cemetery was closed.

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“We phoned them up and said, ‘Listen, this is important, we’d be glad to pay for the people to come and open the grave for her,’” said Dr. Gardee, a 70-year-old South Africa native. “They wouldn’t listen to me. ... I called just about everybody I could think of and said, ‘Please help us,’ to no avail.”

Dr. Gardee ultimately managed to have his mother buried within 24 hours, but only because he found another cemetery, in Montreal, willing to help.

Now, after years of planning and work, developers in two cities are set to meet a burgeoning need by opening two cemeteries – the Toronto Muslim Cemetery on Sunday, and the Ottawa Muslim Cemetery later this summer.

While there are currently five Muslim cemeteries in Ontario, as well as a few others scattered across the country, the new additions are the first to cater to Muslims in Canada’s largest city and its capital.

It isn’t just the Gardee family that has struggled to carry out traditional Islamic last rites in Canada, particularly quick burials on weekends and holidays. The challenge has been identified by Muslim leaders across the country who agree that, as their ranks grow and age, demand will increase for burials that keep with Islamic custom. According to the Pew Research Center, the number of Muslims in Canada is expected to almost triple over the next 20 years, from about 940,000 in 2010 to nearly 2.7-million in 2030.

Work on the Ottawa Muslim Cemetery began in the early 1990s when Abu Nazir, now the president of the group behind the project, started talking with the community about the need. Until that point, most of the Muslim community had been focused on establishing itself by building mosques and schools, he said.

“A cemetery was sort of at the bottom of the list,” he said, “but we decided to do it anyway because it was a missing part of what the community needs.”

Mosques, which have been buying plots at non-denominational cemeteries, run the services before burials that include rites such as the ghusl (washing of the body) and shrouding with kafan (wrapping the body in cotton). The non-denominational cemeteries were able to take care of other customs, including the use of a simple casket and facing the body towards Mecca. But guaranteeing burials within the 24-hour timeline remained a problem.

Mr. Nazir said that after finding appropriate land for the Ottawa cemetery, which took about a decade, the group had to fundraise as much as possible, because Islamic custom doesn’t allow for typical loans. Dr. Gardee, motivated by his own frustrating experience, is one of thousands of donors who have helped to make the $1.2-million project possible.

The cemetery is being done in stages, with about 3,000 plots available this summer, for members of all nearby mosques including Sunni and Shia Muslims. Eventually, there will be 10,000 plots on the 30-acre property.

The opening of Muslim cemeteries in Ottawa and Toronto is a good sign for ensuring multicultural last rites in Canada, said Sandeep Agrawal, Ryerson University’s graduate program director of urban and regional planning, who studied the availability of such burials in 2008.

“We have multicultural rights as a living being but that right should be extended to when someone is dead,” he said.

Still, many barriers remain for Muslim communities who want to open a cemetery, from finding appropriate and affordable land to dealing with local bureaucracies. In London, Ont., noted Prof. Agrawal, a group trying to establish a cemetery faced resistance from residents when they tried to purchase agricultural land owned by a member of the Muslim community. The matter had to be settled by the Ontario Municipal Board in 2002.

The Toronto Muslim Cemetery, located just north of the city in Richmond Hill, is bigger than its Ottawa counterpart – a $10-million partnership between the area’s Sunni and Shia communities with a capacity of about 40,000 graves. Close to 5,000 plots have been pre-sold, according to Sabi Ahsan, a local developer and chairman of the cemetery’s board.

Sarah Latha recently purchased one of the plots for her mother, who is in her 70s. “Of very significant importance to me is just a concern about how to complete those final steps when she passes away,” said Ms. Latha, who was born in Canada.

She’s never planned an Islamic funeral before but knows, as an only child, that the responsibility will fall to her. Ms. Latha said she is reassured that her mother’s last rites will now be taken care of.

“For people who have particular traditions and ceremonies and rituals and ways that you do things,” she said, “it’s really alarming to not know if those things will be able to be done for you.”

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