Baniyas Cemetery in Abu Dhabi is no stranger to crowds. It is the resting place of many Emiratis, whose strong communal bonds compel large numbers of fellow countrymen and women 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 slightly special reason. They were there to attend the funeral of, for the most part, a total stranger, Lois J Mitchell. She was a 95-year-old retired American teacher, who had embraced Islam and adopted the first name Latifa. She had been living an isolated life in Abu Dhabi. Only a son survives her.
Despite her relative obscurity, an announcement by a social media account that publicises Emirati funerals went viral. Islam teaches its followers to support others in their moments of weakness, from illness to death. Attending funeral prayers is one way Emirati society, and those who follow the Islamic faith, show support for one another and the strength of community ties.
The crowds that then formed in the cemetery for her burial were an especially poignant example of the best of the UAE’s communal spirit. Emirati video blogger Majed Alarmy shared the story on Twitter, saying: “[Ms Mitchell’s] funeral was in the same graveyard where my father and mother are buried, next to the mosque.
“In Islam, they say if 40 people attend a person's funeral and pray for that person it is sufficient to wipe away their sins.
“Only Allah knows what beautiful deeds did she do that so many people turned up. May Allah grant her paradise.”
Sheikh Saif bin Zayed, Deputy Prime Minister and Minister of Interior, shared Mr Alarmy’s tweet and said the funeral was a display of Emirati community spirit.
Ms Mitchell might not have been well-known, but her packed funeral and the many tributes that were paid to her in the crowd and online are strong reminders of the universal respect in the UAE’s society, particularly when it comes to older generations, and to those from abroad who have become members of the community in different ways.
In a culture where the elderly are already well looked after within families, the government has in recent years given thought to how it can give older generations more dignity and comfort. Last year, the Department of Community Development in Abu Dhabi launched two digital initiatives to provide them with better quality of life and mental health. For retirees not originally from the Emirates, residents over the age of 55 can apply for a long-term UAE retirement visa of 5 years.
It is morally right to think about our duty to the elderly. Increasingly, it is a practical necessity, too. Only 1 per cent of the UAE’s population was over 60 in 2016. By 2050, the number is expected to be around 16 per cent.
A mixture of government policy and social responsibility will be necessary to accommodate this demographic shift. But it is the latter that will be most important and, as was seen on Saturday, most touching of all.
Ms Mitchell is now laid to rest in a country whose people did their bit 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 more showed its strength.