Md. Bill to Provide Muslims End-of-Life Alternatives

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By Lisa Rein
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, March 5, 2007

Muslims bury their dead with neither flourish nor casket, but a ritual cleansing before the body is quickly returned to the earth, cocooned in a white shroud. But this tradition handed down over centuries has eluded Muslims around Washington, who, like Jews, do not practice embalming -- and are served by just one licensed mortician.

That's changing, though. Virginia licensed its first Muslim-owned funeral home last month, in Woodbridge. And Friday, a committee of Maryland lawmakers approved a bill that would open the industry to Muslims by exempting them from embalmings as they learn the trade.

If the General Assembly approves the bill, Muslims say they would be spared long trips to find mortuaries that will perform a last ablution.

The Maryland legislation is the work of two state delegates, Saqib Ali (D-Montgomery) and Samuel I. Rosenberg (D-Baltimore), who have formed a politically deft partnership: a freshman and the legislature's first Muslim, and a Jew who says he is drawn to issues of religious freedom.

"These are two religions that grew out of the same desert," said Rosenberg, a lawyer in his sixth term. "When people feel their religious rights have been violated, they should stand up and say, 'Give me redress.' "

A simple solution would have been for Muslims to break into the trade. But as with other industries that, over time, have been closed to immigrants by circumstance or design, so it is with funeral homes: Maryland law does not acknowledge the difference between a Christian burial and a Muslim one. Anyone who applies for a mortician's license must embalm and perform cosmetic work on at least 20 dead bodies as an apprentice, a practice banned by Islamic law.

"For us, a person dies in the morning, and the body is in the ground the next day," said Farooq Marfani, funeral director for the Islamic Society of Baltimore, which also serves Muslims in Montgomery and Prince George's counties.

"For Christians, someone dies today, the funeral is next week. We are saying, 'Give us a break and we will put someone up to become a mortician.' " While some funeral homes reserve space for ritual washing, plenty make no space at all.

The bill asks the state Board of Morticians to issue a permit to religious leaders, who would take care of the body from death to burial instead of licensed morticians. Muslims say they pay thousands of dollars for embalming, caskets, flowers and other services they don't use, creating an urgent need for morticians who follows their custom. But several who testified at a hearing last week said the mortuary industry, which could face new competition, has shut them out.

The bill rankled funeral home owners, who said they oppose giving one group special treatment, on the grounds that public health could be compromised.

"You're going to have chaos in the regulatory system for handling dead bodies," said Jim Doyle, lobbyist for the Maryland State Funeral Directors Association, which represents half the state's 270 mortuaries. The state board "would become the board of religious clerics," he said. "There are 1,000 religions out there. . . . The board would be required to just accept that they're legitimate on its face?"

Jewish morticians in training have long endured the embalming requirement. But with several well-established Jewish mortuaries in the region, once the morticians are licensed, they don't have to practice it.

The bill's language does not use the word Muslim, as did a similar measure that failed twice in recent years. The delegates said they tried to make their legislation palatable to those who might bristle at a law designed for one community. But now, as many as 300,000 Muslims live in the District and its Virginia and Maryland suburbs.

"I heard from many Muslims throughout Maryland," Ali testified last month before the House Health and Government Operations committee. "There is an impediment to getting a mortician's license."

Even if Muslims would agree to perform embalmings, he said, no one in the industry would take them as apprentices. "The funeral industry is insular and family-owned. They have their own people in the pipeline."

The state's leading mortuary owners say that entrusting dead bodies to religious leaders who lack training in how to handle the bodies could expose them to HIV, tuberculosis, hepatitis or other diseases.

"There could be leakage from bodies that are autopsied in hospitals," said Earl Canapp, executive vice president of Ruck Funeral Homes in Baltimore, a member of the state board. "It's not that we're trying to prevent anyone from being involved in the business."

Abdul Mateen, owner of the Washington area's only Muslim mortuary, Universal Mortuary on Kennedy Street NW, agreed that health concerns are an issue, but said the industry needs to be more inclusive. "A Muslim burial is a simple burial. There are no high expenses to it. But you have to learn the process," he said.

Universal charges about $1,800 for washing, transporting and burial. The average cost of a funeral in Virginia is $7,000 to $9,000, said Elizabeth Young, executive director of the state Board of Funeral Directors and Embalmers. "It's enormous," she said.

Ira Levinson, a fourth-generation owner of Levinson Funeral Home near Baltimore, said his son is preparing to enter the business. "He would prefer not to embalm [in training], but that's the law."

After the committee hearing, Chairman Peter A. Hammen (D-Baltimore) told the sponsors, the Muslim advocates and the funeral directors to work out a compromise that could pass his committee. He suggested creating two licensing tracks for morticians, those who embalm and those who don't. Maryland and Virginia issued so-called dual licenses until the 1970s, when regulators sought to make the system more professional, discouraging embalmers for hire, who offered their services like traveling salesmen.

The compromise approved Friday represents an acknowledgment of Muslims' growing clout in the Washington area. Said Del. Nathaniel T. Oaks (D-Baltimore), a member of the health committee: "The whole immigrant community is growing. Service is not being provided for a segment of the community. We're trying to remember that."

In Virginia, Muslim leaders are anxiously awaiting the opening of Aden Muslim Funeral Services in Woodbridge.

Rizwan Jaka, director of the All Dulles Area Muslim Society Center, a mosque and community center in Northern Virginia, said funeral homes of other faiths "have been very accommodating" to the region's large number of Muslims. "But a home run by Muslims will be welcome."


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