In a fascinating BBC article, Hugh Schofield explores why so many French Muslims choose burial abroad rather than having their bodies returned to their country of origin. Here is an edited extract
|The old cemetery in Fez|
From working-class neighbourhoods of French towns and cities to the villages of Algeria and Morocco, a strange kind of reverse migration is under way - of the dead. Every year thousands of bodies are being repatriated from France to the Maghreb, as Muslim families return their loved ones to the soil of their original home. It is a costly and complicated business, involving flights, consular administrators and specialist funeral providers. It also prompts the question: why not get buried in France?
After all, France is the country where these families are now destined to live. Would it not be a sign of successful integration if France were also where they chose to rest when they died?
The answer to that question has to do with the complexities of national identity in a world of mass migration. But also with France's own obsession with secular "republican" values, and its reluctance to give ground - literally - on matters of faith.
At the el-Ouadjib (Duty, in Arabic) funeral parlour in Lille in northern France, Abdallah Hadid receives three or four calls a day from families that have just had a death.
|Abdallah Hadid in front of his funeral parlour in Lille|
Hadid says, "While the bodies are prayed over and put in the shroud, our administrative team has to rush to get all the documents: from the city hall, from the police, from the consulates. Then we get the plane tickets for the family, and pay for the coffin to go in the hold. People don't realise it, but on most flights from France to the big cities of North Africa there are bodies in the hold - between one and four, depending on the size of the plane.
"Sometimes it is the villagers back in the old country who club together to pay for the removal. It costs about 2,500 euros (£2,150). But more and more families are using insurance companies, paying a little every year to make sure there is the money for a repatriation when they die."
According to Abdallah Hadid, there are two main reasons for sending the bodies of loved ones back to the Maghreb. The first is the pull of the heart - memories, loyalties, a wistful longing for the "old country".
The second is a more practical consideration: the absence of Muslim cemeteries in France.
France calls itself "laic" (secular). For 100 years there has been a strict separation of religion and state. This means that when it comes to burial places, town councils - which administer the country's cemeteries - refuse any special provision for faiths.
For years, French Muslims have been clamouring for designated areas in municipal graveyards - what they call carres confessionnels. In these, Muslim tombs would be directed towards Mecca as required by religion.
But they are blocked by an institutional reluctance on the part of the French authorities.
In practice, more and more Muslim areas are being created in cemeteries, simply because Muslim graves are being put next to each other. But they are tolerated rather than authorised. There is certainly no official policy to create them.
Another problem for Muslims is that space in French cemeteries is normally provisional. Families take out a lease for 30 or 50 years, after which the bodies are put in a common grave.
But this offends many Muslims, who believe bodies in the ground should not be touched. They are reluctant to burden future generations with the cost of renewing the lease of a French grave, so prefer to have their bodies repatriated.
Islamic Funeral Rituals:Islamic law dictates that the funeral or Janazah should take place as soon as possible after death, with the following steps: Bathing the dead body. Placing the corpse in a white cotton or linen cloth shroud. Funeral prayer. Burial of the dead body in a grave (cremation is forbidden). Positioning the body so the head faces Mecca
"This question of carres confessionnels is extremely important to us," says Dalil Boubakeur, who as Rector of the Grand Mosque in Paris is the nearest there is to a leader of French Islam. "There are now six million Muslims in France. They pay taxes, they vote, they take part in local government. Why should they not have a say in how their dead are buried?"
See the full story here: BBC Magazine