My father is buried in a little cemetery in the heart of Old Dhaka, next to a 400-year-old mosque, surrounded by palm trees and watched over by a little white cat who knows not to walk on the mounds of earth that are the only markers of the graves.
His final journey there, several years ago now, is one that is typical of his generation of Bangladeshi migrants, who, having carved out a life in England for over forty years, still wish for their final resting place to be ‘back home’.
For my father, the consequences of living as a member of a diaspora were key to his thought when, grasping my hand on his hospital bed, he asked me to organise for his body to be buried in the capital of Dhaka. His resting place in Bangladesh should be where he was born: a small village in a tangle of jungle, remote from the capital, on an island in the middle of a river. Instead, he is, quite remarkably, buried in in a tiny urban cemetery in the burial plot of my mother’s family. He wished for this when he first heard his diagnosis, and with great kindness, the imam of this mosque agreed for this prodigal son-in-law to rest with his father and mother-in-law, so that his British born children could visit with ease, and thereby maintain their emotional ties to a homeland that was not their birthplace. My grandmother’s grave is lost. It has been reclaimed by the jungle that spreads lush and green through my father’s village. My father feared the same happening to him, that we would not be able to visit, pray, remember. A Maoist activist to the last, he also wanted to have a Muslim funeral, to rest in hallowed ground, and for my uncles and cousins to visit his burial place every Friday to offer prayers for his departed soul.
Migrant lives, and deaths, are thus woven from contradictory and complex yearnings – for home, for God, for tradition and remembrance. These can also shift with time, and the passing of successive generations. The wishes of male first generation migrants such as my father to be buried back in the homeland are not necessarily shared by the majority of first generation women – or if they are, these wishes are not generally carried out. Nor are they shared by many second and third generation Bangladeshis in Britain, who increasingly wish to be buried here.
As the Muslim community in Britain has grown, increased calls for Islamic burial space provision within Britain have come as a challenge for local authorities, under pressure to find land for new Muslim cemeteries or room within existing burial grounds where graves can be aligned to face Mecca and bodies can be buried without coffins, as the Qu’ran decrees. Responding to the community’s changing needs, fundraising by the East London Mosque and various religious associations resulted in the opening in 2002 of the Gardens of Peace, Britain’s first private, purpose built Muslim cemetery, with space for over 10,000 graves.
We cannot simply attribute this shift in choice of burial location to a generational dilution of attachment to the homeland or to Islam. Rather, this change is happening due to shifts in migrants’ religious practices and affiliations. Muslim clerics in Britain have begun emphasising over the past decade that repatriation is not in compliance with the Quranic requirements for burial within twenty-four hours, arguing that burial in Britain can actually constitute a more purely Islamic death than when a body in embalmed and taken abroad. Here, in the debate about death and migration, the interplay between religion, nationalism and diaspora produces unexpected, unpredictable results.
At the same time, some migrants still wish to be buried back in Bangladesh because they adhere to particular Islamic sects that have locally specific practices which may not be followed accurately in the UK. So, while some clerics in Britain call for burials to take place in British soil, the fact that, in Ceri Peach’s words, the Muslim community is not one homogenous migrant group, but a ‘community of communities’ means that migrant interpretations of a ‘good Muslim death’ are also multiple, heterogeneous and different for each individual (2006).
My father’s burial wishes show him to have been an unusual kind of Muslim, an unorthodox political activist, migrant and patriarch, with deeply individual but also familiar ideas of where he and his family were meant to belong – and what home meant. Each British Muslim’s deeply personal decision regarding their own burial, and the final home in which their body will rest, is similarly informed by his or her own conceptualisation of faith, nation, and family, framed by the experience of migrating from one home and making another elsewhere.
Peach, C. (2006), ‘Islam, Ethnicity and South Asian Religions in the London 2001 Census’, Transactions of the Institute of British Geographers 31(3): 353–370.