Funerals Begin for Victims of Christchurch Mosque Shootings

Carrying the body of a victim before a burial.
Carl Court/Getty Images

Azaam Afaan did not want to be late. The first funeral since Friday’s terrorist attack was about to begin, and though he had no idea who was being buried, he just knew he needed to participate.

Staring through dark sunglasses at the cemetery’s fringe — fighting back tears for a slain friend, as hundreds of mourners approached a hilltop of dirt cut open with row after row of graves — he said he wanted to be part of someone’s goodbye.

“It’s like you’re short of breath,” he said, explaining what it has been like to wait so long for the burials to begin after a gunman killed 50 people at two mosques in Christchurch, New Zealand. “Now we can breathe freely. They’re going to the place they’re supposed to be.”

Islam’s rituals of death prioritize immediate burial and a joyful departure. But as the first six victims were laid to rest on Wednesday in a city where flowers and police tape still fill intersections, the opportunities for relief continued to be elusive, drawing out sorrow, allowing time for relatives to arrive from abroad and delivering closure in spare droplets.

The process of identifying bodies has been, by all accounts, meticulous, in line with international standards and New Zealand’s strict procedures for murder victims. It has also been divisive.

Some of the affected families described the process as paternalistic.

“We’ve been doing this for 1,400 years — we don’t need instructions,” said Saad Nasser, 57, as he departed the day’s first funeral, for Khalid Mustafa, 44, and his son, Hamza Mustafa, 16, Syrian refugees who had moved to New Zealand last year.

Families and some officials spoke of rifts emerging as coroners work overtime to identify the victims while many wonder what is taking so long to bury the dead.

Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern told reporters on Wednesday that she shared the families’ frustration.

“I know the process has been incredibly difficult and frustratingly slow,” she said.

Only a few hours earlier, she had spoken to a student assembly at Cashmere High School. Three of the school’s students had been excused to attend Friday Prayer, as they regularly did. They were all shot at Al Noor mosque, and two died.

One student raised her hand with a question that no one had yet asked the prime minister in public.

“How are you?” she asked.

“Thank you for asking,” Ms. Ardern said. “I’m very sad.”

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SOURCE: The New York Times, Damien Cave and Charlotte Graham-McLay