“A sense of duty”: Voluntary Muslims bury nameless people

A gloomy Islamic funeral ceremony was held in late March in Senegal’s Dakar for 28 unnamed bodies of people attending the funeral who had no relationship or friendship with the deceased, highlighting a simple duty and charity in the West African country.

Neither Mohamed Diop nor his mourners knew any of the people they buried. Volunteers with the Association for Solidarity and Perfection (JRWI) have undertaken to provide the unidentified dead with a Muslim funeral for almost ten years.

For the dead to be buried in a mass grave without Islamic rituals would be considered an abomination in a country that is 90% Muslim, so one day at the end of March, 28 bodies without names, 23 men, two women and three children received a dignified burial with several hundred people present.

JRWI activates its funeral network, but not all mourners are members. Faith, a sense of duty and the hope of divine recognition are some of the reasons why people gather to honor those with whom they have no ties.

Volunteers from the Association for Solidarity and Perfection (JRWI) carry one of 28 unidentified bodies to a mosque before a prayer service in Dakar, Senegal, March 28, 2021. (AFP Photo)

“I was thinking of my final destiny. I do it in the hope of a divine reward, and this is not the first time,” admitted Diop, who is in his twenties.

Mohamed Gueye, an imam in a poor Dakar neighborhood, recalled what inspired him to help found the charity.

“One day I saw a vehicle enter the cemetery and leave shortly afterwards. When I asked, they told me that it had to do with unidentified people who were buried and that it was often in a mass grave without respect for Islamic rules.”

The Islamic instructions include a ritual washing of the body, a white mantle and a prayer, the imam explained. Giving strangers a proper burial is something “we do for God,” he added.

JWRI volunteers get back the people to be buried in public hospitals, as they had done that day at one called Le Dantec. Hospitals must keep deceased patients for 45 days before they are placed in the association’s care, it is said.

Senegalese hospitals did not respond to questions from Agence France-Presse (AFP) on the subject.

It was not known how many unidentified people die each year, nor what happens to organs if the association can not take care of them. It is not uncommon for bodies to remain unidentified or for families not to claim them, and the reasons can be different, from divisions in family ties to administrative shortcomings.

The head of the capital’s fire brigade, Colonel Papa Ange Michel Diatta, said that unidentified bodies could be victims of traffic accidents, the homeless or others suffering from mental illness. Once they have dealt with the emergency, the fire brigade leaves it to the hospitals to identify the deceased.

Volunteers from the Association for Solidarity and Perfection (JRWI) help sort out one of the 28 unidentified bodies that will be loaded into a van in Dakar, Senegal, March 28, 2021. (AFP Photo)

In November, JRWI also buried 13 secret migrants. The group had suspended funerals due to the coronavirus pandemic to avoid exposing volunteers and to ban large gatherings.

“In nine years, we have buried 1,029 people in Dakar and other regions,” said Lamine Mandiang, JRWI’s Secretary General, who works in the oil sector.

A group funeral can cost the equivalent of almost 700 euros (800 dollars), about half of the average annual income per capita, according to World Bank data, and the association does not always have the money, says Imam Gueye.

It is due to contributions from members and others, support from municipal governments or other public institutions and a foundation sponsored by Marieye Faye Sall, Senegal’s first lady. Her serving Senegal Foundation (Fondation Servir le Senegal) has provided vehicles to transport the deceased and the bereaved.

A column of hearses, ambulances and buses traveled from Le Dantec Hospital along a 15-kilometer road to Dakar’s Muslim cemetery.

JRWI volunteers wearing green and orange uniforms unloaded the bodies, led them to a small mosque, where a prayer was held, and carried them to a tomb that had been dug in advance.

Another imam, Mohamed Samb, said one last prayer and also noted that there were many tombs nearby that looked better than what is stated in Islamic rules.

The 28 unidentified bodies will lie under a hill marked with a simple stone without inscription, Samb said.


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