Ezzedine Fatnassi takes comfort in knowing that when his time comes, he can be buried in a Muslim-only section of a cemetery in his adopted hometown of Burlington.
Fatnassi, a 54-year-old immigrant from Tunisia, helped negotiate an agreement last summer that sets aside 60 burial plots for Muslims in the city-owned Lakeview Cemetery.
It took about a year for the Islamic Society of Vermont and the City of Burlington to come to terms, but Fatnassi said the local Muslim faithful are "appreciative" of the agreement. As Fatnassi points out, "If you encourage us to come here, you have to make provisions."
Wayne Gross, chief of Burlington Parks & Recreation, is also the city's superintendent of cemeteries. He said city officials negotiated carefully with the Islamic Society, because the area lacked an overall development plan and there were concerns that future roadwork might interfere with the burial grounds. In the end, a section near North Beach was designated as an exclusive resting ground for Muslims. The first burials are expected following the spring thaw, Gross said.
Since 1993, a portion of Lakeview Cemetery has been reserved for the burial of observant Jews. Local Catholics can bury their dead in the Church-owned Mount Calvary Cemetery in the New North End, while the Episcopal Diocese maintains a cemetery at Rock Point on Lake Champlain.
Two other city-owned Burlington cemeteries, Elmwood and Greenmount, are closed for burials. Gross said that the 46-acre Lakeview Cemetery, which was established 137 years ago, has space for "thousands and thousands" of burial sites.
Muslim burial rites are different from Christian ones and, without government intervention, might have run afoul of local ordinances. For instance, a city requirement that caskets be encased in a concrete vault conflicts with the Muslim practice of putting a corpse in direct contact with the earth. The two sides reached a compromise whereby vaults with holes drilled in them can be used for Muslim burials at Lakeview.
Lots in the Muslim section of Lakeview will be laid out to conform to the Islamic stricture that bodies be buried on their right side with an orientation toward Mecca. Such an arrangement is not possible in other parts of Lakeview or in the city's now-closed Greenmount Cemetery, although a few Muslims have been buried in both those locales.
Muslims also ritualistically wash bodies before consigning them to the earth. That's not a standard practice in U.S. funeral homes, but some in Vermont have been "very helpful" in that regard, says Fareed Smith, secretary of the Islamic Society of Vermont.
Muslim burial is supposed to take place within 24 hours of death. That means if someone dies early in the morning, interment would typically take place that afternoon. That isn't always possible in the United States, said Smith, who converted to Islam in 1999. Waiting for a coroner's report and a death certificate routinely delays burials by two or three days.
"It's not desirable," Smith said, "but there's nothing we can do about it."
Under the agreement between the city and the Islamic Society, plots in the Muslim section of Lakeview will cost the same as other burial sites in the cemetery: $700 for Burlington residents and $1200 for out-of-towners. When other funeral expenses are added in, the price tag can be around $7000, Gross estimates. That's less than a typical Christian burial, but more than many Burlington Muslims can afford to pay.
Mohammed Abdi, head of the Somali Bantu Association of Vermont, said the roughly 400-strong community would likely turn to the Islamic Society for help with burial expenses. Many Muslims arrive in the Burlington area as refugees from other countries. They often can't speak English, Fatnassi said, and "wind up working for the minimum wage. They can't afford to spend a lot to bury a family member."
Fatnassi says he expects to revisit the fee issue with the city at some point in the future.