A tree is said to stand beneath God's heavenly throne, each leaf bearing the name of an individual, and forty days before death that person's leaf falls from the tree as a signal to the angel of death. As death nears, one should prepare by repenting from sin and reading generally from the Koran, especially sura 36, "Ya sin," and others considered notable for their reflections on death. One should face toward Mecca, as in prayer, and repeat the Shahada (profession of faith): "There is no god but God, and Muhammad is the Messenger of God." This serves as preparation for the questioning of the soul in the grave, and it is auspicious to die with these words on one's lips. For the incapacitated, family or other fellow Muslims should whisper pious invocations in the dying person's ears. The dying are considered particularly susceptible to Satan's temptations, and their faith must be reinforced with pious reminders.
Burial should proceed without delay. No embalming or cremation is allowed; aside from being cleaned, the body is left minimally altered. Muslims do not present the dead for viewing, as has become customary in the West. The washing of the corpse is ritualized, echoing purification for worship; it begins with the face, head, hands, and feet, as in ritual ablution, then extends to the rest of the body, proceeding from the right side to the left and accompanied by the appropriate prayers. (The body of a martyr is considered pure and is not washed.) The private parts are to be covered from sight, with the washing proceeding under the covering. The washing is preferably done by a family member of the same sex or a spouse or parent. Soap and scent may be used, and the washing is repeated three times. The body may be perfumed, and orifices covered with scented cloth. A simple white, seamless cloth shroud (preferably in three sections for men and five for women) is wrapped around the corpse, and at this point it may be laid out at home or in a mosque for the special salat al-janaza (prayer for a funeral). Though the Prophet urged restraint in mourning, wailing for the dead is common, and professional mourners may even be hired. Mourning traditionally consists of three days of ascetic behavior (longer for widows), and may include special observances of grief and remembrance on the fortieth day after the funeral, as well as periodic visits to the grave. The spirits of the dead are said to remain close to the grave between death and Judgment Day, and to gain comfort when they are visited by the living, who themselves benefit from the reminder of death.
After prayers, the body is borne to the burial site, accompanied by a procession of loved ones and other Muslims. A coffin is not required, and if one is used, it should not be ostentatious. A traditional grave is several feet deep with a niche to one side for the body. The body is placed in the grave on its right side, with its head facing Mecca, the niche is sealed with bricks, and the grave is filled with earth. Often the surface of the grave is built up with earth or bricks slightly above ground level. Conservative Muslims hold that graves should be minimally adorned, though many employ a marker bearing the deceased's name and some religious text. Some go much further, the Taj Mahal being an extreme example of the elaborate tombs of the wealthy and powerful. Exceptionally pious individuals or "saints" may be buried in special shrines, typically with a domed roof and a space for gathering near the grave. Such saints are popularly credited with miraculous powers and the ability to mediate between believers and God, powers that only increase upon death and draw pilgrims to saints' tombs seeking aid and blessings. Such practices are historically widespread, yet they have inspired equally widespread criticism. Orthodox Sunni theology recognizes only the prophet Muhammad as a potential intercessor between individuals and God, and conservative Muslims decry the impression of idolatry left by the veneration of saints. Still, such practices persist in many areas as a supplement or alternative to orthodox ritual observances.