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In Iraq, coronavirus pushes funeral rituals onto Facebook

November 14, 2020

Many Islamic funeral rites have been adapted to adhere with pandemic restrictions. Now condolence ceremonies, where a whole community of Muslim mourners meets to show respect for the dead, are moving to social media.

Shiite Muslim women take part in a mourning ritual
Image: Mohammed Sawaf/AFP/Getty Images

As COVID-19 infections rise to alarming levels in Iraq, local Muslims are moving an important part of their traditional Islamic funeral rites online.  

Up until recently, a death in the family attracted hundreds of mourners for a three-day post burial condolence ceremony or "mourning council."

With large gatherings at these events becoming a serious health risk, Iraqis have been forced to make changes to the way in which they mourn their loved ones.

Read more: Coronavirus: Practicing Islam amid pandemic

Mourning online

Unlike in Europe, where livestreaming funerals via video conferencing platform Zoom or social media site Facebook has been an option for mourners since the beginning of the pandemic, in Iraq, relatives of those who have passed have posted a simple, black-framed portrait photograph of the deceased on Facebook, often accompanied by a prayer.

Shiite Muslim men take part in a mourning ritual
During 'normal' condolence ceremonies, male and female members mourn in separate spacesImage: Mohammed Sawaf/AFP/Getty Images

With the country now seeing around 3,000 new infections daily and more than 11,000 COVID-19-related deaths to the beginning of November, online wakes in Iraq are becoming increasingly popular amongst Muslim mourners.

Condolence ceremony

At last count, around half of the population — up to 24 million Iraqis had Facebook accounts — making it the most popular social media platform in the country and a simple choice when it comes to communication.

In the past couple of months, online wakes, or condolence ceremonies, have become increasingly popular, says Kholoud Al-Amiry, editor of the Iraqi news website, Al Menassa, based out of the capital, Baghdad, and Sulaymaniyah. One of the first she saw came from acquaintances in Babylon, south of the capital, a family of doctors, whose relative died of cancer.

They posted a message apologizing because they would not be holding a condolence ceremony, Al-Amiry recounts. They said if anybody wanted to send condolences, they should post a message on Facebook. "When the curfew first started in Iraq in March, a lot of people didn't take it seriously," Al-Amiry explains. "But then later, as more [people] began to get infected, I think people started to change their minds [about holding condolence ceremonies]."

Iraqi mourners attend a funeral service
The whole village is expected to attend the condolence ceremony even if they didn't know the deceased, Al-Dawoody saysImage: Marwan Ibrahim/AFP/Getty Images

Adapting funeral rituals


A traditional Islamic funeral consists of the ritual washing and shrouding of the deceased, then a funeral prayer followed by the burial.

Some of these aspects have also had to be adapted during the pandemic. For example, in most Muslim-majority countries at the moment, only a far smaller group of mourners standing further apart, may pray over the body and often this must be outdoors. 

Read more: Coronavirus in the Middle East: Creativity to help knows no bounds

After this, comes the traditional three-day, post-burial event, which usually sees hundreds of mourners gather in a public space — a tent or a hall — to meet the dead person's relatives and offer condolences. It is capped off by a communal meal. On average, for a middle-class Iraqi family, the event costs the hosts anywhere between $5,000 and $7,000 (€4,235-€5,929).

The condolence ceremony is a way of honoring the deceased, experts in Islamic tradition say, and the more people that turn up to accompany the corpse to the burial site and then later for the wake, the more beloved and respected the person is seen to have been. Now, that popularity is being measured by how many condolence comments are posted underneath the notice about the condolence ceremony on Facebook  – most of these receive well over 200 comments per post, sometimes as many as a thousand or more. 

Family members gather around a coffin
Families of those who died after contracting COVID-19 were barred from taking the body back to bury in family tombsImage: AFP/Getty Images

Deviation from tradition


In Iraq, both Sunni Muslim and Shiite Muslim families are using Facebook for the condolence ceremony, Al-Amiry reports. There is one interesting variation from tradition though.

During condolence ceremonies in real life, male and female members of the community are hosted in separate areas. Although on many of the Facebook wake-style events, it is still mainly male family members posting condolences, there are also some women sending sympathies.

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This isn't just happening in Iraq either, notes Ahmed Al-Dawoody, an expert on Islamic jurisprudence at the International Committee of the Red Cross, based in Geneva. "It's happening in the entire Arab world," he told DW. Al-Dawoody has seen instances in Egypt, Morocco, Tunisia, Libya and Mauritania and the United Arab Emirates.

As Al-Dawoody points out, communicating such news – deaths, births, weddings and so forth - via social media was common in the Arab world, even before the pandemic. Moving condolence ceremonies online is the next logical step.

The former assistant professor in Islamic studies originally from Egypt explains that, in Islamic teaching, there are two kinds of responsibilities. Individual responsibility and communal responsibility. For the latter, an entire community is expected to undertake certain obligations, praying or mourning together.

"Death is a community exercise [in Islam]," he continues. "People should share the sorrow."

Islamic religious authorities do not have a problem with this part of the funeral ritual taking place on Facebook. According to a fatwa, or religious edict, issued by Egypt's Dar al-Ifta, a centuries-old Islamic advisory body on Sunni Islam based in Cairo, there's no problem with praying for the soul of a deceased Muslim "in absentia." Other Islamic authorities have agreed that sending remote messages is acceptable and Shiite Muslim authorities have also issued guidelines about relaxing funeral guidelines.

Both Al-Dawoody and Al-Amiry believe that this new way of doing things online could well continue beyond the pandemic. For one thing, Al-Amiry says, it saves an Iraqi family a lot of money at a time when the country is facing an economic crisis.

"This might apply more to the educated person who is more comfortable moving from the virtual world to the physical [and vice versa]. Those who are more conservative may still insist on having these traditional ceremonies," Al-Dawoody adds. 


Cathrin Schaer Author for the Middle East desk.