Khaled Diab meets Jamal Ben Taher, Belgium's Islamic undertaker.
Getting an appointment with Belgium's only Islamic undertaker, Jamal Ben Taher, can prove tricky. He was busy all week with eight funerals to attend to across the country, and couldn't see me before the weekend. I arrived at his shop in Brussels on a sunny Saturday morning – weather to die for (figuratively, that is) in grey, wet Belgium.
“Sorry to keep you waiting, but a Moroccan woman died unexpectedly this morning,” explained Ben Taher, 31. He slipped behind a well-polished wooden desk surrounded by electronic equipment. Amid the remarkable profusion of shrubbery in Les Pompes Funèbres Islamiques de Belgique, only subtle signs revealed his line of business: coffins discreetly stacked behind a screen in the dim recesses at the back.
Ben Taher set up shop 10 years ago, in partnership with a Belgian Muslim, after attending a friend's funeral conducted by a Belgian undertaker who knew little about Islamic practices. Today, their small but successful business has a staff of 15 and remains one of a handful of Islamic undertakers in Europe. It provides comprehensive funerary services, including paperwork, body cleansing, burial, repatriation and even the arranging of Quranic reciters for the wake.
Ben Taher takes me through the steps of a typical Islamic burial, which he notes is quite close to Jewish funerals. At the morgue, the naked body of the deceased is cleansed and wrapped in a shroud known as a kaffan, while religious passages are recited. The body is then placed in a tabout (coffin) which is sealed by the Belgian authorities ready for the funeral ceremony, usually on the following day, or repatriation within three to four days.
While the process of repatriation is fast considering the procedures involved, it is not quite fast enough to meet the demanding Muslim ideal of internment within a day of death. However, Islamic scholars have shown a measure of leniency on the issue. “The Ulemma (theologians) consider entry into the tabout to be equivalent to burial,” says Ben Taher.
Despite the speed and relative ease of burials in Belgium, Muslims often prefer to repatriate their dead, explains Ben Taher. There are theological reasons for this. Belgium, pressed by land constraints in one of Europe's most densely populated areas, only permits the leasing of graves for five to 50 years, after which the remains are cremated – a practice prohibited by Islam.
Despite high demand, Ben Taher attributes the lack of competition in his business to the macabre (a word derived from the Arabic word for graveyard) associations surrounding his profession and the qualifications required before an undertaker can acquire a licence.
“Most Muslims come to Europe to work and they don't really think about death,” he offers as an additional explanation. But when death does visit, they are grateful for his presence. “Muslims are usually relieved to find a fellow Muslim who understands their
needs in times of grief,” says Ben Taher, adding that helping ease their burden is the most rewarding aspect of his job.
Despite his comfortable niche, he says he doesn't charge exorbitant prices. “We prefer to be moderate to show mercy to the dead,” he says, adding that poorer families are sometimes offered significant reductions.
Ben Taher admits that, after a decade of the job, which he compares to that of a doctor, he still finds it emotionally taxing. And it isn't a line of work he would recommend for the queasy or the faint-hearted.
Like a doctor, Ben Taher, who recently became a father, is constantly on call and can often work seven-day weeks. He says he depends heavily on the moral and practical support of his wife. He is careful, he says, to sometimes leave the world of the dead in the charge of his associates so he can enjoy life with his family.
This article appeared in the 11 April 2002 issue of The Bulletin