The Volunteer Gravediggers

Gaël Turine

April – December 2020.

Although Brussels is the second most cosmopolitan city in the world, the Belgian capital has only one multi-faith cemetery. As the second wave of covid-19 hits Belgium severely and international flights are no longer permitted to repatriate the bodies of the deceased, the cemetery’s team is burying between 10 and 15 people a day.

Overwhelmed by so many burials, the 3-person team is assisted daily by a dozen volunteers. Adolescents, adults or retired, these volunteers, mostly men and most of them Muslims, help out at the cemetery by digging and preparing the graves, laying out the walkways, cleaning the green lawns, or, above all, accompanying the families.

Affected by the restrictive measures related to the pandemic, these volunteers (students, workers, unemployed, undocumented workers, entrepreneurs, fathers, …) have chosen to put themselves at the service of their community and get closer to their faith.

The respect of Islamic funeral rites by the Funeral Services, the implication of the cemetery’s team and the presence of the volunteers make this cemetery a reference within the community all over Belgium. Muslims residing in the four regions of the country bury their loved ones in the Brussels Multi-faith cemetery.
Without the crucial help of volunteers who assist families in carrying the casket to the rows of tombs, lowering the coffin (which replaces the burial shroud by Covid-19 measure) into the graves, filling in the graves with earth, praying along the deceased’s relatives and orienting families at the end of the ceremony, the cemetery would no longer be able to provide a traditional Muslim funeral.

The assurance that the tombs will never be exhumed, that the land is untouched, and that the deceased are placed and oriented toward Mecca shows the families that religious burial precepts are also respected. Nowhere else are these Islamic customs applied with such conviction.

The commitment of the volunteers at the multi-faith cemetery is the result of the respect towards the country’s largest religious minority.

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