Covid-19 shows Italy’s lack of Muslim burial spaces

More than 34 000 people have died from Covid-19 in Italy, which has struggled to find burial space. Muslims have suffered the most in being able to lay loved ones properly to rest.

“I’ve never felt different, nor been discriminated [against because of my identity], but I was disappointed with Italy for what happened with my mum,” admitted Hira Ibraim, a 23-year-old Macedonian Muslim based in Pisogne, Lombardy, the Italian region most affected by the Covid-19 pandemic.

Ibraim’s mother passed away on 18 March, during the most trying weeks for Italy, when the curve of deaths and infections seemed to increase endlessly. Cemeteries were full, and so was Pisogne’s city morgue, which forced Ibraim and her family to keep her mother’s coffin at home for nearly a week.

While it was easier to find a solution for deceased Catholics, whose corpses were transferred to other regions’ cemeteries when there was no place, that was not always the case for Muslim communities. Before the pandemic broke out, Italy had less than 50 cemeteries throughout the country with sections that cater for Muslims. Most of them require the person to live in the municipality where the cemetery is situated in order to be buried there.

The Vantiniano cemetery in Brescia – about 45km from Pisogne – authorised the burial of Ibraim’s mother only after the Union of the Italian Islamic Communities (UCOII) stepped in. “As soon as we heard of Hira’s case, we rapidly took action. And thanks to the competent bodies we could solve the issue, but that remains an exception,” said UCOII vice-president Nadia Bouzekri.

Said El Bourji, 54, a Moroccan-born Italian entrepreneur from Empoli, Tuscany, who founded the first Islamic funeral home in Italy in 2011, explained: “Some corpses are still preserved in the burial plots, or even in the morgues’ coolers, with the families waiting for the reopening of air routes between Italy and their countries.”

No return home in death

To date, countries such as Pakistan, Bangladesh and Senegal are accepting corpses travelling in cargo flights. But Morocco, the country of origin for most of the Muslims living in Italy or where they have their roots, still has its borders closed. The North African state recently forbade a body to enter, according to Bouzekri.

Imams, the Muslim communities’ leading figures, recommend that corpses be buried where the person lived and passed away, but in 90% of deaths that doesn’t happen, as stated by Moroccan sociologist and University of Padova scholar Khalid Rhazzali. He revealed this during a seminar titled Islam and Migration, which took place in Rome on 15 May.

One of the main reasons that nine out of 10 Muslim families still prefer to transport the bodies back to their countries of origin is the lack of Islamic sections in cemeteries in Italy. Looking for a municipality where one can bury a family member or at least deal with the Italian bureaucracy can be very frustrating.

“In nine years nothing has changed. In 2020 I still have to drive up and down to fill and file documents,” complained El Bourji. An Islamic funeral home still has to ask for a specific paper at the consulate of the foreign country involved and deliver it to the Italian municipality where the dead Muslim person resided in order to get a mortuary passport.

“Besides, the funeral costs are too high. They can [cost] up to €1 900 [about R36 600], considering the granting of a place at the cemetery and the inhumation,” El Bourji said. The high costs can be a big problem for immigrant individuals or families, who usually don’t have many financial resources. “Sometimes, taking into account all the obstacles aforementioned, transporting the corpse back to the country of origin can be more convenient, especially for North African people whose countries are closer to Italy,” he said.

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The Muslim population in Italy – both Italian born and foreign nationals – comprises about 2.7 million people, according to an estimate based on data from the Italian National Institute of Statistics, the Foundation for Initiatives and Studies on Multi-Ethnicity and the Pew Research Center. The data was elaborated in 2019 by sociologist Fabrizio Ciocca, author of several books about Islam in Italy.

Muslims have become an integral part of Italian society, but it is evident that they can’t properly profess or practise their faith yet. The building of mosques and Islamic cemeteries is hardly allowed, and the lack of the latter and of uniform, permissive laws are the main cause for horrible situations such as the case of Ibrahim’s mother.

“How are we supposed to take roots in Italy if we don’t possess Islamic cemeteries where we can be buried? I already told my sons I want to be buried in Italy. I came here in 1987 and I’ve been an Italian citizen since 1997. I don’t have anybody left in Morocco,” said El Bourji.

Ibraim added: “It is as if Italy forces you to repatriate your loved ones. It can happen that you can either choose to bury them in Catholic cemeteries or repatriate them … Sometimes, families don’t have the financial possibilities to repatriate the body and feel compelled to bury it in Catholic cemeteries [in order] to not have to wait too long. I was so sorry that many families who live in small municipalities like mine, without Islamic cemetery areas, haven’t been able to give their loved ones a worthy burial.”

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Islamic communities in Italy have been asking for years for more cemetery sections, or even entire Islamic cemeteries, in the country where they have settled. Despite the growing Muslim population, the Italian authorities don’t seem to be treating the matter seriously. Many municipalities, under pressure from the UCOII, revised their cemetery plans only recently. “To date, 78 cemeteries have granted an Islamic area and more will join soon,” said Bouzekri.

The opening of an Islamic cemetery section in Piacenza, Lombardy, gladdened Ibraim and made her look on it as the possibly bright side of what she had experienced. “I had to endure this ‘strange’ thing, but at least I know that in the future other people won’t have to experience what I went through. After my mother’s death, there was a person who immediately benefited from it in Piacenza, because the municipality had moved in time to guarantee an Islamic cemetery area there. I’m very happy that my story has been useful.” 

What does the future hold?

Muslims who still want to be buried in their countries of origin are mostly first-generation immigrants who have maintained a strong bond with their homelands. But these days there is a large segment of the Muslim population, made up of first immigrants’ children and grandchildren, who are more attached to Italy, where they were born and raised.

Alongside them, hundreds of Italians who convert to Islam every year have to be counted – they amount to about 100 000, according to Ciocca’s estimates, as reported in an article published on the blog Le Nius on 14 May 2019.

This figure, combined with the number of naturalised foreign citizens, makes Muslim Italian citizens up to around 1.1 million, which represents the 44% of the whole Muslim population in Italy.

The Covid-19 pandemic has shone a harsh spotlight on the lack of Muslim cemeteries. It isn’t possible to sweep it under the carpet again, so a solution is needed to allow Muslims to profess and practise their faith.

El Bourji wants an institutional agreement between Muslim communities and the Italian government that would regulate the practice of Islam. “This agreement should include the building of an Islamic cemetery in each region. It’s useless to have special cemetery areas in many municipalities all over the country … It’s better to build a cemetery in each region without any residence constraint.”

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Bouzekri seems confident about the current agreement with the government: “Last talks had taken place before the pandemic, then they stopped. We hope to find a solution as soon as possible, although I must say the fact that, for the first time, the highest office of the state received our union [to discuss the reopening of mosques] is positive and means they recognise us. The situation is rosier than in the past.”

Ultimately, Ciocca is aware that an institutional agreement is fundamental and the best long-term option, but at the same time he believes that individual agreements between Muslim communities and the municipalities involved can be a successful short-term solution. “The municipalities are responsible for their cemeteries, so why should they wait for a nationwide agreement? They should grant a given space based on the number of Muslim residents in each municipality.”

Whether the answer is a single institutional agreement, more individual agreements or even both, Ciocca underlines that “if we don’t enable Muslim people in Italy to freely feel at the same time equal citizens and Muslims, there will always be a latent conflict situation”.

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