A glimpse into the history of South Asian migration to the United Kingdom through the work of a Muslim funeral business.
ON the bustling Whitechapel Road, nestled between the distinctive red brick of the East London Mosque and a nondescript Islamic clothing shop, sits Haji Taslim Funerals.
Its unassuming entrance is easy to miss. But the history of Haji Taslim Funerals goes as far back as that of South Asian migration to the United Kingdom.
It was founded in 1960 by Taslim Ali, a migrant from what was then East Pakistan and now Bangladesh, who married a Welsh miner’s daughter. As more Muslim migrants began to arrive from South Asia, he identified a need that nobody else was fulfilling: Islamic burials.
“My father purchased a black ambulance van and started to do the funerals here in London,” explains 70-year-old Gulam Taslim of his late father.
“We started from there and we’ve just mushroomed on,” he adds of the family business which he, although semi-retired, continues to run.
Haji Taslim Funerals became the first Muslim undertakers in the UK.
Sixty years later, it remains arguably the most in-demand service of its kind in the country and one that has had a significant role in shaping the British Muslim identity and experience.
“Death is such a leveller. I see people, from beggar to king, and it gives me a big insight into life itself,” reflects Gulam during a brief moment of respite from his duties.
His team of undertakers arranges between 10 and 25 funerals each week and are on call 24 hours a day. In Islamic custom, the dead should be buried as soon as possible, preferably within 24 hours, so speed is of an essence.
“The amount of stress we experience sometimes is immense,” says Gulam. “But you only bury somebody once. And if you do it right, the way my dad used to do it, then that’s good. And if you do it wrong, then those people will never forget you and will always curse you.”
Eighteen-year-old Khaleel Saif, Gulam’s grandson, is the newest member of the team. Saif has been working at the company for just over a year and sees his role as more than just a job. “My whole family, as far as I can remember, have always been funeral directors. So, I’ve been around the idea of death and death as an everyday thing. [I feel I am] carrying on my family’s legacy,” he reflects.
Employees of Haji Taslim Funerals coordinate efforts between multiple individuals and agents to ensure a smooth and speedy burial. Until recently, local coroners often held up the paperwork, with some refusing to give priority to burials based on religious beliefs. But following a High Court ruling in April 2018, coroners are now required to expedite Muslim and Jewish burials, which must take place on the day of death or as soon after as possible.
In the UK, burial fees can vary depending on the neighbourhood where the burial plot is located, although the average cost is in excess of 3,000 British pounds (approximately $4,000). “I’m against repatriation. I believe that we’re part of Great Britain and we’re here. This is our home. But it’s much cheaper to repatriate because of the [high] cost of the grave now in the Greater London area. It is astronomically expensive compared to sending someone back home, which is maybe half the price, if not less,” Gulam explains.
The UK has a well-established and diverse immigrant community and the multicultural and mixed heritage team at Haji Taslim Funerals reflects that. The staff often deal with mixed race families or second and third-generation immigrants. The undertakers must take care to explain the Islamic burial process to non-practising and non-Muslim families. “Muslim burials are very quick, basic and simple but we look after families and explain what is happening,” says Abu Khaled. “Tensions do exist between some Muslims and non-Muslims but when funerals happen, people generally come together and show their respects.”
The company’s fleet of hearses is stored at a nearby garage. The collection reflects Gulam’s love of cars and features a Cadillac, a Harley Davidson motorcycle (complete with a coffin sidecar), a Bentley and a number of Mercedes vehicles. Gulam embraces the UK’s multiculturalism and the idiosyncrasies of different migrant communities. But he has also faced a backlash from some Muslims for being too “open.” He says: “I tend to stay away from the ‘haram’ police. But I don’t judge. To each their own.”
At 70 years of age, the pressure is mounting for Gulam to hand over the business to the next generation, but he has so far only taken semi-retirement. “You can’t let go of something you’ve been doing since 1967. While my mind is active and body is active, I want to help and assist,” Gulam says. “But I think I’ll only fully retire when I die.”
The future of the business and Taslim Ali’s legacy now seems to rest on Khaleel Saif. “My grandson, with my guidance, can one day do what I do. I need someone to steer the ship in the future and I think he will be very successful,” Gulam tells Al Jazeera.
Gulam grew up in a mostly Jewish community but has witnessed a demographic shift over the years. Nowadays, the neighbourhood is home to a large South Asian, predominantly Bangladeshi, community.
At the heart of the community is the East London Mosque. With a history spanning more than 100 years, it is London’s oldest mosque. To commemorate the historical contributions of Muslims to the UK, the mosque inaugurated the UK’s first Muslim archive in November 2017.