Out in the Open

Canadian Muslims face tough choices on where to bury their dead

Absent proper places to bury their dead loved ones in Canada, many Muslims are repatriating bodies back to their country of origin.
Chedly Belkhodja, centre, poses with family members, including his father, Khaled, on the right.

When Chedly Belkhodja's dad died in Moncton, N.B., three years ago, it was clear to Chedly what needed to be done. 

"He wanted, probably, to be buried back in Tunisia," Chedly says.

They'd never discussed it. But his father, a Muslim who had spent most of his adult life in Canada, travelled to his home country regularly, sometimes bringing Chedly along. 

"I remember years ago, we would go to the cemetery — there's a huge cemetery — and he would go because his mother, his father were in that place," he says.

"Like many, I think, immigrants who come to Canada of that generation, when they get older, there's this thing of returning."

In Islam, Chedly explains, bodies are meant to be buried very soon after death. But many Canadian families compromise on that requirement and send their loved ones back home, so that they might receive a religiously appropriate burial.

Proper burial arrangements for Muslims can be hard to find in Canada. Following a shooting at a Quebec City mosque earlier this year, five of the six Muslim men who died were sent back to their country of origin. The sixth was buried in Laval, Que. 

In the months after the shooting, residents of a town near Quebec City voted to oppose a planned Muslim cemetery there. But Quebec City's Muslim community eventually got a place to bury their dead after reaching an agreement with the city on another parcel of land.

Chedly feels he made the right decision. He received help from the Tunisian consulate in Montreal, as well as the Tunisian government. And he accompanied his father's body to a Tunisian cemetery.

Chedly, a professor at Concordia University, has since traveled across Canada to learn about what Muslims are doing with their dead.

"People are ageing in a lot of communities," he says. "I think it's [a concern] that's going to be more and more present."

This story originally aired on October 8, 2017. It appears in the Out in the Open episode "Ageing*".