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Muslims hoping for a cemetery of their own; Hurdles need clearing for site in Lackawanna

Muslims have solidified their presence in Western New York with new mosques, Islamic schools and small businesses over the last several years.

Now the Muslim community is experiencing another inevitability of its growth and maturation -- the need for more eternal resting space.

A Muslim group in Lackawanna wants to build its own religious cemetery on about nine acres of vacant land in an old industrial section of the city.

While funeral plots are widely available in other cemeteries across Erie County, the large community of Muslims of Yemeni descent -- estimated at 3,000 to 6,000 people in Lackawanna -- has long sought burial space closer to home.

If approved, the cemetery proposed for Lackawanna would join another Muslim cemetery located in 2002 on a former industrial site on Buffalo's East Side -- as well as Muslim sections established in 2009 inside Ridge Lawn Cemetery on Harlem Road in Cheektowaga and Niagara Falls Memorial Park Cemetery in Lewiston. Lakeside Cemetery in Hamburg also has had a large burial section set aside for Muslims since the early 1980s.

The unmarked cemetery on Stone Street in Buffalo prompted plenty of confusion in March 2011, when Buffalo police received a report of a body being buried there.

No signs identified the open field, which is owned by Darul-Uloom Al-Madania mosque on nearby Sobieski Street. As it turned out, members of the congregation, who had a city permit for the religious cemetery, simply were burying one of their own.

Like fellow Muslims in Buffalo, Yemenites in Lackawanna say they want to be able to bury their loved ones quickly and visit the gravesites regularly -- rather than travel to Hamburg and Cheektowaga.

The vacant land on South Street is within walking distance for Lackawanna Yemenites, some of whom don't drive.

The mosque expects to offer burial plots that are more affordable than what the large cemeteries charge, said Abdul Noman, 1st Ward Councilman.

The Yemenite community also wants to establish its own funeral home where bodies can be washed and wrapped in a special shroud, in accordance with Islamic requirements and ritual.

Cremation and embalming are prohibited in Islamic tradition, which calls for the deceased to be buried in the ground as soon as possible after death, with the body on its right-hand side, facing the Muslim holy city of Mecca.

Muslims also believe that praying at the gravesite of a loved one provides religious benefits both for the dead and for those reciting the prayers.

But the plan in Lackawanna for a cemetery on South Street, behind St. Anthony Catholic Church on Ingham Avenue, is facing some hurdles.

The Lackawanna Islamic Mosque purchased a vacant seven-acre parcel for $5,700 from the city in 2010, with the intention of converting it into a cemetery. An adjacent two acres, owned by a member of the mosque, is expected to be donated for the project.

City code, however, requires that any cemetery be at least 20 acres. So the mosque is now seeking a variance of nearly 11 acres from the city's Zoning Board of Appeals.

"There should be some kind of flexibility," Mohamed Saleh said, noting that the mosque was unlikely to find 20 contiguous acres in an urban area such as Lackawanna.

The Yemenite community needs just seven acres or so to accommodate burials for the next 300 years, Saleh, director of the mosque, told the Zoning Board during its most recent meeting last week.

The Zoning Board of Appeals ultimately tabled the mosque's variance request due to questions about what might be in the soil dug up for burials.

A group of parishioners from St. Anthony Church showed up at the meeting to express caution about the potential for stirring up toxins found in soil samples near the parcel.

The land purchased by the mosque was once part of an industrial park.

The state designated some property in the area as a Class 4 inactive hazardous waste site -- to be used for "non-intrusive" purposes, such as soccer fields or other recreation.

But Saleh and a lawyer for the mosque maintained that any toxicity was limited to a small portion of land where no burial plots would be dug.

"The area we're talking about is not affected by those environmental hazards," said the attorney, Bruce A. Ikefugi. "The greater part of the site is not the industrial site."

Noman, in an interview, said the city already had a work session in which officials from the state Department of Environmental Conservation explained that the land in question was cleaned up.

"They did take all the soil out," he said.

The Zoning Board planned to consult with the DEC before reconsidering the cemetery variance request.

In an interview with The Buffalo News, DEC spokeswoman Lisa King said the property where the cemetery is being planned is not on the agency's registry of hazardous waste sites, and thus does not have any environmental deed restrictions or monitoring requirements.

An adjacent parcel of about five acres is still considered a Class 4 site, where redevelopment is not possible, King said.