Baniyas Cemetery in Abu Dhabi is no stranger to crowds. It is the resting place of many Emiratis, whose strong community ties compel large numbers of countrymen and compatriots to pay their respects when people pass away.
On Saturday, hundreds of Emiratis arrived to mourn at the site. But this time it was for a rather special reason. They were there to attend the funeral, for the most part, of a complete stranger, Lois J Mitchell. She was a 95-year-old retired American teacher who had embraced Islam and adopted the name Latifa. She lived an isolated life in Abu Dhabi. Only one son survives him.
Despite its relative obscurity, an announcement from a social media account advertising the Emirati funeral has gone viral. Islam teaches its followers to support others in times of weakness, from illness to death. Attending funeral prayers is a way for Emirati society, and those who follow the Islamic faith, to support each other and strengthen community bonds.
The crowd that then formed in the cemetery for his burial was a particularly poignant example of the best of UAE community spirit. Emirati video blogger Majed Alarmy shared the story on Twitter, saying: “[Ms Mitchell’s] the funeral took place in the same cemetery where my father and my mother are buried, next to the mosque.
“In Islam, it is said that if 40 people attend a person’s funeral and pray for that person, that is enough to wipe away their sins.
“Only Allah knows what beautiful deeds she did to get so many people to show up. May Allah grant her paradise.
Sheikh Saif bin Zayed, deputy prime minister and interior minister, shared Mr Alarmy’s tweet and said the funeral was a show of Emirati community spirit.
Ms Mitchell may not have been well known, but her packed funeral and the many tributes paid to her in crowds and online are powerful reminders of universal respect in UAE society, especially in this concerning older generations, and to those abroad who have become members of the community in different ways.
In a culture where older people are already well cared for within families, the government has in recent years considered how to give older generations more dignity and comfort. Last year, the Department of Community Development Abu Dhabi launched two digital initiatives to provide them with a better quality of life and better mental health. For non-Emirati retirees, residents over the age of 55 can apply for a 5-year UAE long-term retirement visa.
It is morally right to think of our duty to the elderly. Increasingly, it is also a practical necessity. Only 1% of the population of the United Arab Emirates was over the age of 60 in 2016. By 2050, this number is expected to be around 16%.
A mix of government policy and social responsibility will be needed to adapt to this demographic shift. But it is the latter which will be the most important and, as we saw on Saturday, the most touching of all.
Ms Mitchell is now buried in a country whose people have done their part in return to respect her memory. A good judge of society is how it treats its most vulnerable people. In this poignant moment, UAE society once again showed its strength.
Posted: November 23, 2022, 03:00