There’s no room to “take it with you”

My boyfriend and I really enjoy Time Team, the wildly popular and long-running British archaeology series. Recently we watched season 7, episode 1 (episode 46) titled “A Muslim Port in Spain.” One focus of the team’s efforts was a Muslim cemetery where many skeletons have already been discovered. The bodies had been buried on their right sides, facing the Qibla (i.e. Mecca) in narrow graves. 

Illustration by the author

One of the the local archaeologists made a comment about the graves being “the width of a hand and four fingers.” The way he said it made me think it was a quotation from a religious source. I took it to mean that a narrow grave was both humble and practical, and that a larger grave might be wasteful. It got me thinking about the amount of space we take up in death, and the space we take up in life. 

I read up a bit on Islamic burial customs but could not find the source of the “hand and four fingers” quote. I learned how graves are dug in the Islamic tradition and one type in particular forms a long, narrow slot. The burial customs I read about emphasized respect and efficiency and made perfect sense to me.

I learned it’s getting harder for Muslims and Jews alike to bury their dead in accordance with religious edicts. Cemetery real estate is becoming scarcer and pricier, and bigotry gets in the way of establishing new space. I’ll cover that “running out of room” topic in future posts.

A space-efficient Jewish cemetery in Portland, Oregon. Photo by the author.

A hand and four fingers. That’s all a body needs. I’m using up much more than that now. I want to use less. I’m working on it. 

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