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Last Update: August 5, 2008 5:32 AM

First Muslim cemetery opens in Alaska

ANCHORAGE, Alaska (AP) - A 1998 newspaper story about two Muslim children mistakenly buried on top of each other in Palmer left Ake Dobrova weak with outrage.

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One of the children had to be exhumed and reburied, a violation of Muslim beliefs. The cemetery mix-up caused anguish all around.

"I was feeling so bad about it," said Dobrova, a small-business owner from Albania. "What kind of people are we (that) we don't have no cemetery?"

That year, he decided to make a cemetery himself. This year, what he started has become the first official Muslim resting place in Alaska.

Islamic teaching, or "sunnah," is strict and specific about the treatment of the dead. A body must be washed by the family, prayed over by the men, wrapped in a shroud and laid in the ground facing Mecca. Burial must occur quickly after death, and the grave must be located near those of other Muslims.

Some have paid thousands of dollars to have the bodies of loved ones sent back to their home countries because there was no Muslim cemetery in Alaska. Often there was trouble with paperwork and shipping. For many years, Muslims collected money to build a place to lay their family members to rest.

"It's very hard to collect money, because everybody try to survive," said Dobrova, who came to the U.S. 23 years ago. "It's a nice country, but it's hard."

Dobrova paid to reserve 72 spaces at Anchorage Memorial Park Cemetery downtown, behind the Sheraton Anchorage Hotel, in 1999. He told no one but Don Warden, the cemetery director. When Muslim families lost loves ones, Warden offered them a place where they could be buried with other Muslims.

Just recently, the Islamic Community Center of Anchorage, Alaska, the city's biggest mosque, discovered the reserved spaces.

"I never tell them, but they found out," Dobrova said.

With the money they'd raised, ICCAA added 40 more spots, creating Alaska's first official Muslim burial site. So far, 12 people have been buried there.

The Muslim section is on the eastern side of the cemetery near Fairbanks Street. ICCAA was given preliminary approval to place a fence around it in the spring, similar to the neighboring Jewish section, Warden said.

Memorial Park, established in 1915 and run by the city, has many sections designated for groups and religions whose tradition is to be buried together. There are a Catholic section, two Jewish sections, a veterans' section and sections for fraternal organizations like the Moose and the Masons. A plot in the cemetery is free, but it costs $150 to reserve. The cemetery has more than 17,000 graves and is just more than half full.

Anchorage now has close to 2,000 Muslims, said Imran Khan, ICCAA's acting imam, or spiritual leader. A few are converts, and many more are immigrants from the Middle East, Europe, Asia and Africa.

Their numbers have increased along with Anchorage's minority population, which has grown sixfold since 1970 while the population at large has only doubled.

Laws and logistics still get in the way of some Muslim burial practices, though the cemeteries and funeral homes do their best to be accommodating, said Bob Ferrell, general manger of Witzleben Family Funeral Homes, who's been in the funeral business in Alaska for 30 years.

Ideally, a body should be buried within 24 hours and definitely within three days, Khan said. Sometimes the schedule of the funeral home and the cemetery can't accommodate people, Ferrell said. And in the winter, the ground can be opened only in a small section of the cemetery, located outside the reserved sections, Warden said. Traditionally, Muslim bodies are not buried in caskets, but the community has adapted, opting for simple wooden boxes to comply with cemetery regulations, Khan said.

The new Muslim section is just one more way the cemetery has changed to reflect the city's changing population. Over the years, the tombstones have sprouted family names from a greater span of countries, including Korea, the Pacific Islands and Southeast Asia.

Warden has also seen a widening array of grief and burial traditions in recent years. On Memorial Day, large Samoan families gather there to sit vigil. A Hmong family recently brought a freshly sacrificed chicken, spreading blood on the casket before burial - part of their tradition, he said.

"The cemetery is where all of the community comes together," Warden said. "I think all cemeteries have a diverse culture."

The new designated section makes Anchorage a more attractive place for Muslims to settle, Khan said.

"For the people that are going to live here, this is excellent news for them," he said. "They are saying that for us and our kids, we are going to stay here and get buried here."

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Information from: Anchorage Daily News, http://www.adn.com

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