SUNSET PARK – A funeral home in Sunset Park has been raising money to purchase a refrigerated trailer because it claims “hospitals are running out of space, and are now taking their trailer-filled containers to Randall’s Island for mass burial.” This claim, which caused panic on social media, is false. Bodies are temporarily being stored because of lack of hospital space, but there is no mass burial on Randall’s Island, and the Mayor’s office assures us there will not be one.
Nooruddean Abu Ibraheem Rabah, the president of The Janazah Project, posted a video on Facebook appealing to Muslims saying hospitals were taking their trailers with dead bodies to Randall’s Island to bury everyone. “They’re going to dig one grave and they’re going to put many bodies inside of that grave and bury them,” he said, adding that they needed about $20,000 to purchase a trailer where they will “properly store and refrigerate our brothers and sisters until they are buried,” following the particular funeral/burial traditions of the Islamic faith. The post was shared numerous times on social media, and the video spread in various WhatsApp groups.
Muslims were understandably upset, and so, they began to donate. People were able to donate money via Zelle, PayPal, and Venmo, raising over $185,000, with the fundraising set to end tomorrow.
But, a spokesperson at Mayor Bill de Blasio’s office told Bklyner, “There will be no mass burial on Randall’s Island.”
According to the Gothamist, there is a burial taking place in Hart’s Island. But, that is for bodies that have not been claimed for over two weeks. And it’s temporary. It’s a process that has been around for decades. The usual policy for holding bodies before the coronavirus was for around 30 days. This new policy does not affect the bodies that are claimed right after their death. To note, funeral home directors can claim bodies without having to pick them up immediately.
Khalid Latif, the Executive Director and Imam at the Islamic Center at NYU (ICNYU), and organizer of the LaunchGood page “NYC Emergency Funeral Services Fund” posted on Facebook about the fundraiser on Tuesday.
“I’ve spoken to so many people who have lost loved ones in the last week due to COVID-19. The grief that they are feeling has been amplified that much more due to restrictions that keep them from seeing their loved ones in their last moments at the hospital,” he wrote. “On top of this, they are not being allowed to partake in any of the funeral rites – washing, shrouding, prayer or burial – after their passing. I can’t imagine how much harder it would be for them if their loved ones couldn’t have any of the funeral rites performed at all because of a shortage of funds. But that is a strong possibility for many in the weeks ahead unless we do something about it.”
He then included Rabah’s statement about the mass burial on Randall’s Island in his post, prompting Majlis Ash-Shura: Islamic Leadership Council of New York, to release a statement:
“There have been rumors circulating that bodies are being cremated and moved into mass graves. These rumors are FALSE and have been verified with the Mayor’s office. Shura New York is working with the city and Imams closely in monitoring the needs of the Muslim community,” the statement said. “The trailers that were seen in circulated videos were moving unclaimed bodies to temporary locations due to lack of capacity to store bodies in hospitals. We urge the community to not spread misinformation as this leads to chaos.”
In a video, Majlis Ash-Shura’s Executive Director Raja Abdulhaq, explained, “Given the situation and the number of people who are unfortunately dying because of the coronavirus, hospitals are forced to move unclaimed bodies… What the City ended up doing is creating temporary morgues inside trailers, or makeshift morgues, with one of them stationed around Randall’s Island until they get claimed.”
“This information, it seems, was misinterpreted, or there was some kind of miscommunication that some people thought that the moving of these bodies from the hospital to another location means these bodies are being buried in mass graves.”
In this video, our Executive Director Raja Abdulhaq, clarifies and refutes the rumors surrounding the burial of Muslims in mass graves on Randalls Island.
Posted by Majlis Ash-Shura of New York on Wednesday, April 8, 2020
After people started questioning the legitimacy of the campaign, Latif clarified and apologized. He was the only one to do so.
“It came to my attention that some people were confused by various messages circulating online regarding Muslim funeral services in the NYC area and how it related to our campaign,” he wrote. “It is a difficult time for a lot of us, especially those who have lost loved ones or are fearful of losing someone. Not knowing what is taking place can heighten anxiety. If anything from my end added to that for any of you, please do forgive me for that.”
He then said the fundraising campaign was “a legitimate campaign, proceeds from which will be going to a few different funeral homes and services in the NYC area inshallah to help facilitate and streamline their operations in the unique situation we all find ourselves in these days.”
“The brothers and sisters who are working for funeral homes and services in NYC and other parts of the country are beyond overwhelmed. It’s important for all of us to recognize the difficulty of the work itself and what it must be like to absorb the experiences that they have been faced with literally around the clock since all of this started and will continue to face for weeks to come,” he said. “When we add to that the prism of religious responsibility they carry with them, the stress is likely unimaginable. Compassion is a necessary component and we should empathetically understand what is conveyed to us by those on the ground and on the frontlines wherever possible.”
Therefore, the funds will now be “used to assist those who otherwise could not afford the cost of burial plots and other expenses, acquiring more vehicles to assist with transport, and purchase much-need protective gear, sanitizers, and disinfectants for those doing this important work,” he said. The LaunchGood page, however, says the money will be going “to other funeral services in the NYC area.”
Ahmed Ali, an Imam who is involved with Al-Rayyan Muslim Funeral Services, believes The Janazah Project should issue an apology.
“It’s okay to request and share our needs to the community, like if any funeral home is running out of space, graves, or anything, then they should specifically request community to help out,” he said. “But it’s not okay to spread rumors such as mass burial to play with the community’s emotions to fundraise. I agree that sometimes we receive wrong information, but it’s our responsibility to verify it before we post it along with a fundraiser.”
Additionally, Ali says The Janazah Project should be more transparent. Where exactly is the money that was fundraised going to?
It is no secret that funeral homes are currently overwhelmed because of the number of deaths in the City, which has reached 4,260. In Brooklyn alone, there are currently 1,185 recorded coronavirus-related deaths. Funeral homes are working around the clock, picking up bodies from the hospitals, and performing sometimes 20 janazahs a day. The Janazah Project is no different.
In the Muslim community, The Janazah Project is quite popular; mostly for the incredible work it has done over the years, such as by raising money to provide free funerals for people who could otherwise not afford it. It is run by Rabah, who has been doing Islamic funeral work in NYC for over a decade. In a 2016 story by Al Jazeera, Rabah said, “Muslims here have a common saying: ‘We can’t afford to die here.'”
It can be very costly to hold a funeral, especially because there is not a Muslim-only graveyard in New York. And that all makes the work The Janazah Project does even more important. Throughout the years, they have raised a lot of money helping those who need it most.
“There is no doubt in my mind that the money that was raised is going to go to funding funerals,” one person commented. “I just wish The Janazah Project was more transparent about it, especially now that we know there is no mass burial, which of course started their fundraising.”
We reached out to Rabah, Latif, and The Janazah Project many times but did not hear back.