Guest Blog: Elsa Kunz, Graduate Student, Harvard Divinity School
Covid-19 impacted religious communities throughout the world. Grounded in the cultural studies approach to religion, advocated by The Program for Religion and Public Life at Harvard Divinity School, this lesson aims to provide students an opportunity to explore the impact of Covid-19 on Muslim communities globally. Specifically, it interrogates normative assumptions about burial practices, while demonstrating the real-world impact of these assumptions on the lives of Muslims today.
Topic: Global Islam and Covid-19
Subject: World Religions, Health
How does one care for the body after death? The question can be a deeply philosophical inquiry that probes metaphysical understandings of the self. But it can also be a practical matter: how one cares for the deceased is also animated by economic systems and broader cultural practices. Religion is deeply embedded in these structures.
In the U.S., funeral practices have shifted dramatically over the last 50 years with a notable increase in cremation over burial. In 1980, fewer than 10% of all deceased Americans were cremated. By 2015, more than 50% were cremated. Moreover, the National Funeral Directors Association expects that percentage to approach 80% by 2040.1 The reasons for this shift are myriad and include shifts in neoliberal market policies and the establishment of death care as a profitable industry (today worth over $20 billion), rising funeral costs, space, and eco-consciousness.
In addition to changing over time, cremation rates also vary around the world. In Japan, for example, the percentage is consistently high, with over 99% opting for cremation. That same figure is less than 2% in the United Arab Emirates.2 Some of these global differences can be accounted for by religious tradition. Japan is largely Shinto/Buddhist — two traditions in which cremation is the norm. In contrast, in the UAE where most citizens are Muslim, there is a clear emphasis on burial within 24-48 hours in a plot oriented towards Mecca.
COVID-19 also created difficult conditions for funerals of all types around the world. Numerous hospitals were worried about the spread of disease, and many individuals were separated from their loved ones in their final moments. In the U.S., this resulted in a COVID-linked increase in cremation rates, even within groups who traditionally preferred burials.3 For Muslims, the situation was particularly challenging. Both cultural and pandemic factors were converging to raise the expectation of cremation while traditional religious beliefs/practices continued to proclaim against it.
The activity below prompts students to engage with the ways in which systems of power (race, coloniality, religious hegemony) can impact the access of funeral rites, specifically in the case of Muslim communities worldwide.
Show students a map of the world. Ask them to mark on the map where they think the world’s Muslim live. More likely than not, students will point towards the Middle East.
Then, show these two images. Ask students to share their observations. What did they expect and were there any surprises?
Both of these charts use total population to document the distribution of Islam globally. In contrast to maps which use relative percentages to display the Muslim population worldwide, the images above disrupt one of the major assumptions about Islam: that most Muslims live in the Middle East. In fact, only about 20% of Muslims worldwide reside in the Arab world, and more than 10% reside in Indonesia alone.
With these facts in mind, ask students how they think the global geographic diversity of Islam might affect how Islam is practiced. How might location and cultural context inform structure? What are the implications of diverse cultural practices around Islam?
Have students brainstorm their ideas with each other and share out.
Then, focus on one of the principles of religious literacy from The Program for Religion and Public Life at Harvard Divinity School: internal diversity.
Internal diversity means that not all Muslims think and act in the same way. Articulate aloud how the map is a demonstration of the fact that Muslims live throughout the world. These differing cultural contexts strongly suggest that religious practices and beliefs may also differ. You might also want to encourage students to share their own examples about cultural influences on non-religious practices that are familiar to them (e.g., sports, music, art, secular holidays).
Next, prompt students to participate in a case study jigsaw regarding Islam’s internal diversity. In this station activity, students will encounter challenges regarding burials for Muslims throughout the world during COVID-19. Explain that this case study will highlight three locations:
First, provide a brief overview about challenges of funeral rites during Covid-19 (see the background above or click here for a sample script). Muslim funeral practices vary in different cultures, but cremation is forbidden in Islamic law and is quite rare. Typically, the body is ritually washed and draped (usually in an inexpensive white cloth) as soon as possible following death. The Salat al-Janazah, or funeral prayer, is performed before burial.
Students can then choose one of the three locations, reading the linked article or video above.
Provide the following guiding questions:
- How does the following case challenge assumptions about Islam? Are there any places it perpetuates assumptions about Islam?
- What systems (social, political, economic, etc.) limited Muslim access to their desired funeral rights? Can you identify suggestions for creating a more equitable future?
Each group will share their findings. As each group shares, identify the location on the map to emphasize that Islam is not limited to the Middle East. After everyone has shared, engage in a concluding discussion. The following questions can jumpstart conversation:
- Now that we’ve heard from experiences in three different parts of the world, what similarities did you notice? What differences?
- What were some of the unique challenges that only one of the locations faced? Why might that challenge be exclusive to this location?
- In all of these situations, Muslims were in the minority. Who articulates what consists of a ‘normal’ burial? What relations of power are in place?
- “2022 NFDA Cremation and Burial Report” (National Funeral Directors Association, July 2022), https://californiahealthline.org/wp-content/uploads/sites/3/2022/09/2022_ Cremation-and-Burial-Report.pdf
- International Cremation Statistics (The Cremation Society, 2019), https://www.cremation.org.uk/International-cremation-statistics-2019
- “Cremation Increasing in Black & Latino Communities during COVID,” PBS (Public Broadcasting Service, May 5, 2021), https://www.pbs.org/wgbh/frontline/article/cremation-increasing-black-latino-communities-covid-19-funeral-professionals-say/
About the Author
Elsa received her BA in French and is currently a graduate student at Harvard Divinity School. An aspiring secondary school educator, she spends time thinking about how to creatively incorporate the academic study of religion in the humanities classroom. Outside of her research, she enjoys running, singing, and hiking with friends. Her two previous lesson plans, also published by Religion Matters, are: