Andrew Dys

Mosque planning Rock Hill’s first Muslim cemetery

Commentary by Andrew Dys

Herald Columnist

Rock Hill Muslims are planning to build a cemetery on what is now a wooded lot near the intersection of Bird Street and Anderson Road.
Rock Hill Muslims are planning to build a cemetery on what is now a wooded lot near the intersection of Bird Street and Anderson Road.

Members of Rock Hill’s only mosque are planning to build the city’s first private cemetery for local Muslims.

“We want a place to bury our family members in the Muslim tradition,” said Nazir Cheema, a member of Masjid Al-Salam, “and we want to do it here in Rock Hill, where we are members of the community and love our community.”

The cemetery, which would be owned and operated by the Islamic Center of South Carolina, would be on Bird Street near Anderson Road, not far from St. Anne Catholic Church and its school.

The property is zoned mainly for single-family homes, but that designation allows “complementary uses” that include “community facilities” and “religious institutions.”

Muslim leaders say their proposed cemetery is valid under the city’s zoning code, and on Tuesday they’ll ask the city’s Zoning Board of Appeals to grant an exception.

Members of Masjid Al-Salam – “Mosque of Peace” – already have approached neighbors near the site to explain what they want to do and why. They say they have heard concerns about traffic, the presence of large monuments, and other concerns normally associated with cemeteries.

A couple of neighbors have raised questions about the planned cemetery, city officials confirmed, but their concerns were more about having a cemetery in a residential neighborhood than its religious affiliation.

The Muslim religion does not allow large monuments, mausoleums or even ornate grave markers, mosque members say, and funeral processions are not part of their tradition. The property would be fenced, with a line of vegetation to conceal grave sites from the street and adjoining properties, Cheema said. Members of the mosque will handle maintenance and upkeep.

But the fact that the cemetery would be for Muslims, he said, means there has been some concern.

“You say the word Muslim sometimes, and people get the wrong idea,” Cheema said. “We are people in Rock Hill just like anyone else. We love our city.”

Muslim burial tradition calls for angling a deceased person’s head toward the right shoulder, face turned toward Mecca – the religion’s holy city in Saudi Arabia. Remains of the faithful are buried in a simple wooden casket, usually before sunset the day after death. Two Rock Hill funeral homes have agreed to assist the mosque with funerals, mosque leaders said.

Cheema has lived in Rock Hill for 45 years, some of that in the same neighborhood where the cemetery would be built. He and the other members of the mosque want their loved ones to be buried nearby.

“It is a place we would go and pray,” Cheema said. “A quiet place.”

The mosque opened in 2013 on West Main Street near downtown Rock Hill after years of construction. There was almost no public opposition to the mosque.

But local Muslims know that since the 2001 terrorist attacks on New York and Washington, and subsequent atrocities committed by extremists in the name of religion, that there is some suspicion, hostility and opposition to Muslims.

To counter those concerns, Rock Hill Muslims have repeatedly denounced terrorism and crime as being against Islam, and repeatedly have welcomed Christian religious leaders, law enforcement and the public into the mosque.

And now, not only do these people of faith want to live among others in Rock Hill, they want their dead to rest no differently, as well.

“We are Americans who love Rock Hill, love our state and nation, who are Muslim,” said James “Jumah” Moore, a Rock Hill native and executive director of the Islamic center. “We stand for peace and love and harmony.”

Want to go?

The Rock Hill Zoning Board of Appeals will meet at 6:30 p.m. Tuesday in the City Council chambers at City Hall, 155 Johnston St., Rock Hill.