The Fate of a Proposed Muslim Cemetery in Dudley, Massachusetts
When my wife Fannia and I were looking to buy a house in Evanston, after I had been appointed as dean at Northwestern, the real estate agent who drove us around, said of the house we wound up buying, “A few years ago you could not have bought it: 2112 Orrington Avenue was not to be sold to Jews.”
That was in 1973, somewhat after the end of the pervasive anti-Semitism earlier in the century. It was certainly in full swing when we arrived in New York in 1939, only to wane notably after the end of World War II. (I mention this because I suspect that most of the readers of this blog do not know how far we have come from the time when in the US, anti-Semitism was widespread, even the norm.)
Now, alas, it is the turn of the Muslims. A sad New York Times story1 gives an account of an unsuccessful attempt by Muslims to purchase a chunk of land near Dudley, Massachusetts to be able to create a Muslim cemetery, on about six to twelve acres of a much larger area of local farmland they were prepared to buy.
I can’t think of a less intrusive use of land than as the place to bury one’s dead. Now and then a quiet ceremony and that’s it. That’s particularly true of Muslim rites which emphatically don’t go in for funereal show biz. The dead should be buried close to where they lived and promptly, if only to avoid embalming. Graves are to be simple, without monuments and internment is to be without elaborate ceremony. In short, if the citizens of Dudley had investigated Muslim funeral practices, they would have found them to be exceedingly unobtrusive. The annual six to ten burials that were envisaged would hardly have been noticed by the surrounding community.
The Times article does not mention that inquiries were made about Muslim practices and it is highly probable that such information was not sought. The one townsman who is quoted no doubt spoke for many of his fellow citizens: “You want a Muslim cemetery? . . . Fine. Put it in your backyard. Not mine.”
Note, parenthetically, that neither the Dudley Times story nor my references to Jews in America refer to such special causes of immigration as the Holocaust for Jews or the ISSIS-related events among Muslims. These remarks are meant to look at both groups as being in the long tradition of immigrants to America.
In one way this Massachusetts account can be taken as one of an untold number in which the previously arrived propose or engage in negative behavior, to use an hygienic term, toward more recent arrivals, especially from areas other than Western Europe. Such reactions were of course particularly provoked when the number of those who came during a relatively short period of time was large. Such as micks from Ireland, dagos from Italy, chinks from China and quite a few others. There is a word for looking down on each segment of humanity that arrived in the US after the middle of the 19th century.
And yet, my beginning this account with a reference to prejudice against Jews points to a closer analogy to those who sought to create a cemetery in the middle of New England. Those Irish micks fled the potato famine in their own country; what they had in common was the desire to escape hunger. Those dagos from Calabria and Sicily left their homes for analogous economic reasons. Since both these groups were largely Roman Catholics, they indeed were in America second class citizens for a long stretch of time. They were not, however, persecuted for their religion, either at their old or their new homes. Of course each of such populations had many other traits in common—language, of course, and the food they ate—cultural traits, rather than institutional ones.
Jews and Muslims, on the other hand, are—each group—bound together by religious institutions that have their own quite visible practices that set them apart from the larger population surrounding them, most of which came to America before them.
These are big topics and I have already said more than I intended—that is, more than I feel sure about. The “simple” point I want to make is that I see those New England Muslims as being treated in ways Jews were dealt with not so long ago. Our similarities has me hope that Muslims will ultimately and successfully be integrated into American society as Jews have been, with their own institutions intact.
1 “Muslims Seek New Burial Ground, and a Small Town Balks,” http://www.nytimes.com /2016/08/29/us/muslims-seek-new-burial-ground-and-a-small-town-balks.html?emc=eta1