A Muslim cemetery south of the Twin Cities is one step closer to being realized after eight years of vandalism and legal battles over land use.
The Al Maghfirah Cemetery Association received a conditional use permit in June to develop burial plots and a funeral home for land it purchased in 2014. The 72-acre plot in Castle Rock, Minnesota, is expected to offer nearly 50,000 burial plots and will serve Muslims from the Twin Cities and suburban metro area.
“We’ve been waiting to use that land now for eight years,” said Mohamad Osman, president of the cemetery association. “Hopefully, now we have everything we need from the city.”
The cemetery would be the largest of its kind in Minnesota dedicated solely to Muslim burials. Multiple cemeteries in the Twin Cities metro area offer Muslim burial plots in addition to non-Muslim burials.
Muslim cemeteries differ from traditional cemeteries in many ways. While cultural traditions within Islam vary, gravestones in Muslim cemeteries are usually simple and flush with the ground. Some Muslims refuse to step on established gravesites, so Muslim cemeteries also often require extra space to allow mourners to walk around cemetery plots.
Mohamad said the first stage of excavation will clear about five acres of land in order to accommodate approximately 5,000 burial plots, a parking lot, walking paths, and an Islamic center for funeral prayers and rites. The first stage of development is projected to cost $4.3 million and is expected to start in March 2023 and finish by that August.
“This is something that we can depend on for many generations to come,” Mohamad said. “Many Muslims would love if they had their own cemetery where they can feel a sense of belonging.”
The Al Maghfirah Cemetery Association hosted a meeting on November 12 with almost 30 local imams, community leaders, and small business owners to discuss the current status of the project and their next steps. Since development of the land can’t begin until the snow melts, Mohamad said they will spend the winter raising money for the cemetery.
A long time coming
The Al Maghfirah Cemetery Association first purchased the land in February 2014 but faced multiple challenges over the last eight years. The Castle Rock Board of Supervisors rejected an application in 2014 to create an Islamic cemetery on the land because of a potential loss of a “lot of tax base” and because the property “would not be open to the public for burials,” MPR reported.
Castle Rock is located in Dakota County south of Farmington and north of Northfield.
The cemetery association also submitted a conditional use permit in November 2014, which the township denied. The Castle Rock planning commission amended zoning ordinances so that cemeteries were not allowed in the area. The association then filed a lawsuit in the Dakota County District Court in May 2015 challenging the zoning ordinance, and a judge ruled in their favor in early 2016.
However, a proposal for the cemetery and a funeral home was rejected by the township again in 2017. The judge’s 2016 ruling allowed for the cemetery, but not a funeral home. Mohamad said they intended to use an existing building on the property as a prayer hall where they could also wash the body in accordance with Islamic practice.
The Al Maghfirah Cemetery Association submitted another application for a conditional use permit, this time including a plan for a funeral home. The Castle Rock board of supervisors approved the application this past June.
In addition to legal battles, the Al Maghfirah Cemetery Association has also experienced vandalism twice. In 2017, vandals spray painted the walls of a building on the property with swastikas and a message that said, “Leave, you R dead.”
In October 2021, the Dakota County Sheriff’s Office received a call reporting damage to the building’s garage door, a broken window, cut gas lines and electric wires, and tires dumped inside the building. Mohamad estimated that the damage cost nearly $167,000.
In May of this year, the Minnesota chapter of the Council on American-Islamic Relations reported that security footage at the site showed an individual dismantling a security camera. The Dakota County Sheriff’s Office arrested the suspect, who is currently charged with burglary.
“We call on local FBI officials to investigate this latest attack along with the Dakota County Sheriff’s Office,” CAIR-MN Executive Director, Jaylani Hussein, said in a statement after the incident. “We believe this burglary and trespass are a result of efforts to thwart having a Muslim cemetery in this township.”
The importance of Muslim cemeteries
There are subtle differences that set Muslim cemeteries and funerals apart from other faiths. In preparation for burial, for example, Muslims wash the deceased person’s body without chemicals and then wrap the body in a white, unstitched cloth. The body is buried as-is, without any makeup or clothing.
Community members congregate at a mosque for the Janazah, or funeral prayer, before the burial. Burial should occur as soon as possible under Islamic teachings.
Currently, the most popular option for Muslim burials in the Twin Cities is the Garden of Eden Cemetery in Burnsville, which caters only to Muslims. Garden of Eden Cemetery shares property with Pleasantview Memorial Gardens cemetery, which serves other faiths.
There are 1,500 people buried at the Garden of Eden Cemetery, and an additional 2,800 burial sites have been plotted out, according to Kyle Anderson, the cemetery’s funeral director. Anderson estimated that the cemetery could accommodate at most an additional 500 to 1,000 burial plots.
“The customs are different,” Anderson said of the importance of Muslim spaces at cemeteries. “If they don’t have a facility that’s capable of providing services that coincide with those traditions, the community ends up being underserved or poorly served.”
Muslim funerals must occur as soon as possible, and the process can be delayed if a funeral home is closed on the weekends. Anderson said Garden of Eden Cemetery’s services are available on weekends, and even on Christmas Day.
Muhammad Abdullah, who is more commonly known as “Brother Abdullah,” is a funeral advisor and coordinator who oversees Muslim burials at a number of cemeteries including the Garden of Eden Cemetery, Mounds Cemetery in Brooklyn Center, Dawn Valley Cemetery in Bloomington, and others.
Abdullah is often the first person Muslim community members in the Twin Cities call after a death.
“The way of Islam has to do with the unity of Muslims in life and in death,” Abdullah said.
He noted that designating space for Muslims in a cemetery encourages members of the community to come and pay their respects not just to loved ones, but to the community.
The need for more space is growing, Abdullah added. Earlier this month, he oversaw five Muslim funerals in one day.
“People came here and never thought about dying here, but that is something that happens,” Abdullah said of Muslim immigrants who first settled in Minnesota before there were Muslim cemeteries. “So we’re going to need it, and perhaps several different ones.”
While Garden of Eden Cemetery is the most well-known option for Muslims in the Twin Cities area, Mohamad said there are some limitations. For example, he said, the Islamic funeral prayer is not conducted on site and is instead hosted at a local mosque because there is no Islamic center at the Garden of Eden Cemetery. Mohamad also said there isn’t enough space for parking to accommodate the growing community. Burial space is the biggest limitation, he added.
Anderson said that burials increased due to the COVID pandemic by roughly 60 percent. There were 190 burials at Garden of Eden in 2019. That number went up to 310 in 2020. Anderson estimated that 80 to 90 deaths in 2020 were directly related to COVID.
“I didn’t even foresee that population growth to the point of having to add some other staff,” Anderson said. “A 15 percent change we can accommodate, but when you get that 60 percent jump out of nowhere, that was a lot.”
Total burials at Garden of Eden Cemetery were down to 280 in 2021, Anderson said.
Anderson predicted that Garden of Eden Cemetery will run out of space for burials in about 12 to 15 years. Abdullah agreed with that timeline and hopes the Al Maghfirah Cemetery Association and other Muslim cemeteries across the Twin Cities can serve the community for the next 100 years.