The colour of grief: Burying the dead in Morocco

Morocco is synonymous with colour. Cities glow with burnt yellows and rich rusts; deep majorelle blue; verdant roof tiles. The towering spice displays in the souqs are a kaleidoscope of ochre, burgundy, mustard, cherry and khaki. However, this abundance of colour is completely removed when it comes to the colours of death and mourning.

Traditionally, when an Islamic loved one dies in Morocco, the family foresees the care of the body beforehand in the home, washing it and chanting as it is carefully wrapped in the purest of white linen. White is the predominant colour of grief – a stark contrast with the Western tradition of all-black funeral garments. Muslims generally wear white to a funeral. They believe that white is associated with humility and wholesomeness. It’s also appropriate to wear drab, neutral or duller colours that suit the sombre occasion. But the colours that typified the vibrancy of life, are no longer present.      (Photo courtesy: Islamic Funerals)

With 99% of Moroccans identifying as Muslim, Islam is Morocco’s most common religion. Muslims believe in burying the deceased within 24 hours of the death when possible, because only then will their souls find peace..  Under Islamic law, as in many cultures and religions, the management of dead bodies is the object of specific rules that aim at ensuring the dignity and respect of the dead as well as for their living relatives. 

According to Islamic tradition, the burial of a deceased person is a collective obligation by the Muslim community. This obligation consists of ritual washing of dead bodies, shrouding the body with pieces of cloth and finally, a funeral prayer.

While Islamic law provides that every dead body should be buried in an individual grave, Muslims agree that, in case of necessity such as armed conflicts or disasters such as Covid-19, collective graves are permitted. Male and female bodies should be buried in separate graves, but if necessity dictates otherwise, it is stipulated that a barrier of dust should be placed between the bodies. (Photo courtesy: FuneralCoverQuotes.co.za)

Of overriding importance in the orientation of an Islamic grave is the qibla, the direction of Mecca. In Morocco, the body is therefore placed in the grave more or less on its right side, with its face turned toward Mecca, while  an appropriate chapter of the Quran is read out loud.

Burying the dead in the ground is regarded as the correct way of respecting dead bodies, while cremation is prohibited because it is considered a violation of the dignity of the human body.

In a world where millions of young Moroccans have opted to live in Europe pursuing better educational and work opportunities and more freedom from social restrictions (you can be arrested for kissing in public in Morocco), I was fascinated to read that every year literally thousands of bodies are being repatriated from European countries to the Maghreb, as Muslim families return their loved ones to be buried in the soil of their original home. It is a costly and complicated business, involving flights, consular administrators and specialist funeral provider. Every flight between Europe and Morocco is likely carrying a few coffins in the hold.(BBC news)

There are a few reasons for this:

The first is the emotional drawcard of old memories, wistful loyalties to those that may already be buried there or family that may still be alive in the home country.

The second is a more practical consideration, and relates to the absence of Muslim cemeteries in countries such as France, Italy and the Netherlands. This means that when it comes to burial places, town councils – which administer the country’s cemeteries – refuse any special provision for faiths. In most European countries,  families take out a lease for 30 or 50 years, after which the bodies are put in a common grave. This notion offends many Muslims, who believe bodies in the ground should never be touched. In some European countries it is necessary to revive written approval to bury a person. As this is usually only granted after 36 hours, it violates the Islamic requirement to intern their dead within 24 hours. Another sticking point is the fact for Europeans it is customary to bury people in coffins, while deceased Muslims are usually wrapped in shrouds and placed directly into the earth. In traditional Islam, the grave is part of the earth. It is nothing. It is visited as long as there is close family, but then it vanishes. 


Looking across from Rabat to Salé, the Muslim cemetery spreads out below the city walls

As a result despite many Muslims seeking a home in a foreign country, they somehow are not totally at peace given that they are prepared to live there, but not to die there!

An interview with young European Moroccans about their preferences revealed the telling insight: “We’ll cheer for the Dutch football team, but to be buried here is pushing it too far.”

The graveyard of Chefchaouen sees the signature blue colours of their city carried through to the tombstones

The more European way of death sees the striving for a sense of permanence, usually through elaborate statues and fairly detailed inscriptions on headstones.  Possibly the more of a physical structure on a grave, the more it shows the society’s fear of death? Muslim graves are often simple mounds of earth, with a name scratched on a small piece of wood or demarcated concrete patches with little to indicate who is buried there.

Historically, Morocco had many Jews. Home to more than 250,000 Jews prior to 1948, today a community of about 2,000. Although today they are almost all gone, they left their presence in distinctive Jewish cemeteries

Arriving at the main Jewish cemetery in Fez is quite fascinating. Adjacent to the mellah (Jewish residential area) are rows of more than 3000 white-washed tombs. The cemetery was established in 1883. These tombs were blindingly white in the midday sunshine and were freshly painted in 2019. The cemetery is overseen by a Muslim who inherited the responsibility from his father.

Few of the tombs in the cemetery have an epigraph. The Jews believed that the duty of remembering the dead and where they were buried fell to each succeeding generation, a custom that sowed the seeds for ultimate oblivion.

Standing out amongst the cylindrical shapes were the tombs of some notable Jewish martyrs and esteemed rabbis. These bore inscriptions and explanations in Arabic, French and English.

The blue-painted tomb belongs to Solica, also known as Sol Hachuel and Lalla Suleika, born in Tangier in 1817. The local governor is said to have offered her great wealth to convert, so that her beauty would be a credit to the Muslims – and then tortured her when she refused. She was transferred to Fez, where she was beheaded in 1834, at age 17. For her steadfastness, she is also venerated by Moroccan Muslim women.

We came across quite a few small, white gravestones in an area off to one side. Later, I learned that these were graves of children that had died during a typhoid fever epidemic. 

North of the Fez Medina are the skeletal remains of the Merenid Tombs. Built in the 14th century, the tombs were once the sumptuous resting places of the Merenids’ finest, but after years at the mercy of conquests and looters, they lack most of their original decorative charm. The mausoleum once bore inscriptions detailing the names and feats of the dead, but time has effaced them, leaving the crumbling building as a mute monument of a celebrated but barely understood past. What the remaining tombs lack in aesthetics, the view more than compensates.

The Muslim cemetery blankets the steep hill. Directly below the tombs on either side of the cliff are two large graveyards that are used as grazing grounds for local shepherds.

The municipal authorities have allowed the place to become the fiefdom of vagrants, stray dogs, and grazing flocks of sheep and goats. 

In Islam death is not as the termination of life, rather the continuation of life in another form.
This life was created by Allah as a testing ground for the afterlife.

“To Allah will be your return all together then he will inform you of what you used to do. ” (Quran 5:105)




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