The Do’s and Don’ts of Gravestones
By Ayah Siddiqui
In the circle of life, the name you might one day see on a sign outside an office door or embroidered on a physician’s white coat can make its way to a headstone. When a loved one passes away, there are so many things the family members left behind have to do. When emotions are high and energy low, families should ideally not have to squabble over things like gravestones.
If you visit cemeteries in North America, you will see many tombstones inscribed with the deceased’s name and birth/death dates. Some of them may also have religious symbols, excerpts or even pictures on them. Muslim scholars have different responses about Islamic rulings regarding tombstones.
“Marking the spot of the grave is recommended,” said Imam Azhar Subedar (Islamic Association of Collin County mosque, Plano, Texas). “It is recommended for identification purposes. But anything beyond recognition is considered makruh – discouraged, but not forbidden.” He said that anything extravagant is discouraged and that graves shouldn’t have monuments built upon them.
The Prophet (salla Allahu ‘alayhi wa sallam) placed a stone on Uthman bin Math’un’s (radi Allah ‘anhu) grave and said, “I am marking my brother’s grave with it, and I shall bury beside him those of my family who die” (“Sunan Abi Dawud,” hadith no. 3206).
However, there can be a difference of opinion on the details. “It is offensive to place an inscription on the grave,” according to Ahmad ibn Naqib al-Misri, a Shafi‘i scholar. In his “Reliance of the Traveler,” a classic manual of Islamic law, he said an exception can be made if the deceased is a religious scholar so that he may be visited and honored. Imam Ahmad believes that unless one is an Islamic historical figure, his/her grave should be flat and unmarked.
Options in North America
Many North American cemeteries have areas separated by faith, and most are willing to accommodate your preferences and religious practices. It’s common to see the Muslim section having flat markers and name plates, as opposed to standing headstones.
In addition, having a headstone is usually the choice of the deceased’s family, for no law requires that one be purchased, especially because doing so can get expensive. This was the case with the Usmani family in Houston.
“My maternal grandfather doesn’t have a tombstone,” said Fasih Siddiqui. “No one in the family could afford it at the time. Then when my grandmother died, we didn’t place a tombstone because they believed it was against Islamic law.”
Different families have different ideas about whether tombstones are allowed. Siddiqui’s family is originally from Pakistan, where some believe that adding a tombstone can make the grave pakka (completed). Once a grave is pakka, it has the potential to become a shrine. In addition, there is fear of bid‘a (innovation), such as visiting graves to ask the deceased to intercede and get prayers answered.
Rasekh Siddiqui, Fasih’s father, elaborated on why many people in Pakistan think this way. He related the story of a man who passed away many years ago in Karachi. His family believed they should mark his grave so that they could visit it and recite the Quran there. Obviously, having the tombstone would help identify the grave.
But as the months went by, they began finding more and more markings on the grave, each one more elaborate than the last. Upon finding the man who was enhancing the grave, they asked him “Why did you do this?” and he replied that the grave belonged to a great saint and should be revered. The family decided to tear down what he had built, fearing that it would be worshiped.
There are many examples of saints’ burial places becoming places to which people travel to make a sacrifice in hopes that the saint will pray to God for them. This is where the fear of bid‘a and shirk (associating partners) starts.
In contrast to the Usmani family, the Mohammed family of Murfreesboro, Tenn., have different thoughts. “My parents were buried in Nashville. Both of their graves had stones. They were gray-colored stones, about 14 inches in height and 12 inches wide,” said Azmath Ali. “Their markers contained their names, birth dates, and the day they died. My mother’s grave also had an inscription that said who she was the wife of.”
The Mohammed family believes that gravestones can be used according to Islamic guidelines, as long as the intention is solely for identification purposes.
If a family does decide to get a gravestone, they should inquire about the size and material requirements from the cemetery. While some cemeteries may say you need to buy a gravestone from them, it is usually not required. You can provide their guidelines to any other company. Some places may also need a special beveled edge or other specifications for lawn mowers and snow removal around the gravesite. Even if you order a gravestone from a Muslim company, the cemetery does the installation.
Death is anyways a stressful time for the family. If these matters are sorted out in advance, it can be one less thing to worry about when you have just lost a loved one.
Ayah Siddiqui, a student in McKinney, Texas, enjoys reading and learning about current events from several points of view.