Muslim Cemetery Meets Opposition in Texas Town | KERA News

Muslim Cemetery Meets Opposition in Texas Town

Jul 30, 2015

A proposed cemetery has sparked a debate in small-town Texas. The Islamic Association of Collin County wants to build a 34-acre cemetery in Farmersville, about an hour north of Dallas. That’s led to some pretty heated rhetoric from a number of locals who are trying to stop it. Although the mayor of the predominantly white community has said the cemetery is allowed to be built, some people are pushing for a no vote.

This town used to be the Onion capital of North Texas. And although the “Collin County Sweets” it became famous for had a mild flavor, resident Medford Sumrow has some harsh words for the proposed cemetery.

“We don’t need that crap up here,” he says. “What the hell they want to come up here and jack with Farmersville for?”

On a recent morning Sumrow is sitting on a bench downtown. He watches as folks drive along the red brick road, ducking into the post office and drug store. Farmersville is a quiet town, but Sumrow says the Islamic Association of Collin County’s recent land purchase has riled him up. He’s especially upset by what he’s heard are Muslim burial practices.

“They just scrub ‘em down, wrap ‘em up, put ‘em in the grave and that’s without a casket, without embalming,” he says. Health experts dismiss concerns about Muslim burial practices as nonsense. Furthermore, the Islamic Association says bodies will be placed in wooden caskets and then in cement vaults. 

Handling The Opposition 

Ever since the nonprofit Islamic Association of Collin County laid out plans to build a large cemetery on undeveloped land, resident scholar Khalil Abdur-Rashid has heard some pretty incendiary remarks.

“Some folks have said if they go forth with this we’ll pour pigs blood on it,” he says. “That is something that has just been very hurtful.”

There are more than twenty thousand Muslims in Collin County. But there’s not an active Muslim community within Farmersville. Which is why Abdul-Rashid, who’s wearing dress clothes and a traditional white cap, stands out in downtown’s “Freedom Plaza.” Most men here are in blue jeans or overalls and cowboy boots.

He explains the reason the Islamic Association bought the land is simple: They’re running out of room to bury members of the faith.

“Nobody is looking to come in and change anything,” Abdur-Rashid says. “We saw this land and saw this property and we thought it would be a beautiful place to preserve the memory of folks that we thought were beautiful.”

Abdul-Rashid says he didn’t expect so much vitriol and opposition.

“We have enough bridges to build as an American-Muslim community for our living,” he says. “I didn’t know we had to do that for our deceased as well.”

‘Not A Religious Issue’

Local Diane Piwko is against the cemetery and says isn’t about religion or health.

“We don’t like the fact that we seem to be portrayed as radicals against Islam,” Piwko says. “We don’t want to be dumped on. We want to have say in how our community grows.”

She wants the land, which is private, to be used for residential and commercial use.

City Manager Ben White says his goal is to treat the application fairly. And so far, he says, the Association’s proposal – which includes an open air pavilion and small retail component -- has met all development requirements.

Still, some members of the commission that oversees planning and zoning have received threats.

“Certainly [it] is unnerving to the people it is happening to, and in the city of Farmersville we take that very, very, very seriously and our chief of police is investigating these things right now,” White says.

Not everyone hanging around downtown has a problem with the cemetery. 

Harvey Sisco has lived in Farmersville for more than 60 years. He says he has a good relationship with the few Muslim people he knows who work around town. Besides, he says, it seems silly to be afraid of the dead.

“Once you’re gone you’re gone,” Sisco says. “They’re not going to come back and haunt us.”

The debate in Farmersville isn’t going anywhere for now. Between city approvals and permitting it could be months, even years until this drama plays out.