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Saturday, November 1, 2014

Planning commission defers decision on Afghan funeral chapel

A map showing the location of the proposed funeral chapel.
Following a lengthy public hearing on a proposal by the Afghan Academy to build a funeral chapel on a .92-acre lot on Braddock Road in Annandale, the Fairfax County Planning Commission approved a motion to defer a decision until Nov. 20. [Update: On Nov. 5, the Planning Commission deferred the decision to Dec. 3.]

The motion was made by Janet Hall, the Mason District representative on the Planning Commission to resolve some confusion about legal issues and to give both parties a chance to come together and seek common ground.

Heavy traffic at the Braddock/Backlick intersection.
Many of the complaints about the chapel discussed at a meeting of the Mason District Land Use Committee Oct. 28 – plus a few new issues – were brought up at the Planning Commission hearing.

Complaints from local residents centered around traffic at the Braddock Road/Backlick Road intersection; overflow parking by patrons of the Mustafa Center on neighborhood streets, the Bradlick Shopping Center, and Deerhill Park; the safety of pedestrians crossing Braddock Road; and the size of the proposed funeral chapel and how it would be used.

Several representatives of the Afghan community spoke at the hearing about Muslim burial practices and why the facility is needed. 

The funeral chapel would be used for washing bodies and preparing them for burial. There would be no embalming, which is prohibited in the Muslim religion. Only the immediate family would be present. Prayers are said, and the whole ceremony only lasts about an hour. The body is then taken to a cemetery where there would be a larger crowd of mourners.

Tariqel Kahn told the Planning Commission there aren’t any other appropriate facilities nearby. The closest funeral chapel is in Manassas and it doesn’t meet the community’s standards of cleanliness.

“We live, work, and worship in Fairfax County. We need a place here for burials,” he said. Having a chapel here will “help build bridges” and foster better communication among different cultures.

There was some discussion at the hearing about the definition of a funeral chapel vs. a funeral home. Under the Fairfax County zoning ordinance, funeral chapels cannot carry out embalming, autopsies, or cremation.

Kathleen McDermott, of Sunset Lane, Annandale, testifying on behalf of the Mason District Council of Community Associations, said the ordinance states that “the performance of other services for the preparation of the dead” is only allowed in a funeral home. That means if the chapel is used for washing bodies, it should be classified as a funeral home, not a chapel, she said, and funeral homes are not allowed in areas zoned for residential use. The property on Braddock Road is zoned R-2.

Hall said, “We fundamentally disagree” on that interpretation, and Planning Commission chair Peter Murphy (Springfield) concurred.

Craig Blakeley, also of Sunset Lane, brought up another concern: Approving this application would violate the zoning ordinance because there is an inconsistency between Virginia state law and the zoning ordinance. According to state law, a licensed “funeral service establishment” is required to have a facility for embalming, he said.

That shows a need for a legal opinion by the county attorney, Hall said.

Spence Limbock, a representative of the Hillbrook-Tall Oaks Civic Association, said the association board opposes the application, primarily because the funeral chapel would exacerbate traffic congestion at the Braddock/Backlick intersection, which he said is the “third most dangerous intersection in Virginia.”

Hall noted that the only way to enter the chapel would be a right turn from Braddock and the only way to exit would be a right turn onto Braddock – so that shouldn’t overburden traffic.

The applicant has revised the application, agreeing to close the chapel at 11:30 a.m. on Fridays, because that’s the busiest day at the mosque.

If the funeral chapel parking lot is full, Limbock said, people would park at the Mustafa Center across the street – which would create a pedestrian safety concern.

McDermott said the community is also concerned that people going to the mosque would use the chapel parking lot when the chapel is closed, then cross Braddock in the middle of the block, which would be unsafe. She suggested closing the chapel lot when the facility is closed.

Hall asked whether it would be better if Mosque attendees used those 34 spaces rather than park in the neighborhood.

At-large commissioner Janyce Hedetniemi suggested mosque officials inform their patrons about parking restrictions in the neighborhood. Kahn said the mosque already encourages people to carpool and acknowledged more can be done to work with the community and explore shared parking with nearby churches.

The Mustafa Center on a Friday afternoon.
Mohamed Bashir, president of Mustafa Center, said lots of people come to the mosque for Friday prayers, but only about 30 to 50 come for services at other times.

Although the Mustafa Center and funeral chapel are both owned by the Afghan Academy, they are “two different entities with different purposes,” he said. “Don’t mix the two together.”

“Funeral services have nothing to do with the mosque,” said Hamed Ibrahim. People coming to one facility won’t go the other one.

McDermott also raised concerns about the size of the proposed chapel. The applicant has reduced the maximum capacity from 104 to 90 people. Still, McDermott asked why such a large building (7,300 square feet) is needed if only immediate family will attend services. It would be a problem if the building was used for other purposes, such as meetings.

Keith Martin, the lawyer representing the Afghan Academy, said the building size is appropriate because the facility needs a private room for body preparation, a place for the family to gather, an office, and vestibule. 

The funeral chapel would replace this house at 6839 Braddock Road.
There were several questions about the “size of the immediate family” taking part in services at a chapel. One member of the Afghan community who testified said 15 people attended the service for a relative. Someone else put the number at 20 to 30.

Khalid Shakeb of Fairfax said the chapel is needed because there isn’t an appropriate facility nearby. He had to take his grandmother’s body to Prince William County, where “the facility was not clean or dignified.” He called the concerns about parking and traffic “grossly exaggerated.” Others questioned why no one is complaining about all the traffic generated by the two mega-churches nearby.

“This is about American aspirations for liberty and dignity,” said a Mustafa Center patron and U.S. citizen who grew up in Fairfax County and graduated from Woodson High School and George Mason University. “Delaying this and denying this prevents a large number of Fairfax County citizens from having their services performed to their beliefs,” he said.

Another member of the Afghan community said what they’re seeking is “a simple request to give some dignity to the dead.”

The emphasis on traffic “seems like scapegoating,” said someone else. “I’m shocked that we have to talk about the size of the family and how we prepare the body. These are not land use issues. If it was a Christian or nondenominational chapel, we would not be here now. It breaks my heart that we have to do this.”

This is about land use, not religion or nationality, said Murphy. “The funeral chapel is something new,” said Hall. “I want to make sure it’s done correctly.”


  1. "The emphasis on traffic “seems like scapegoating,” said someone else. “I’m shocked that we have to talk about the size of the family and how we prepare the body. These are not land use issues. If it was a Christian or nondenominational chapel, we would not be here now. It breaks my heart that we have to do this.”

    The reason for questions of the size of immediate family is because 90 seats for a family of 15 or 20 does not make sense. The parking lot is small for 90 seats. We already had a bait and switch with the mosque. They have very few parking spaces for the amount of people who use the mosque especially on Friday. Do not throw religion into it when the mosque and chapel are being run by the same organization and the mosque have not been good neighbors to date. Parking in the shopping center, park & neighborhood. Driving across a median so they do not have to wait their turn until VDOT put up a barrier and a sign that says stay off median.

  2. So... the only way into the funeral chapel would be a right turn from Braddock Rd. and to leave a right turn on Braddock. There wouldn't be a median cut to be able to make a left into the chapel from Braddock? That is very hard to believe, and if true then people would be making U-turns on Braddock to go west on leaving. And making U-turns to try to get into the facility. The amount of people already making U-turns near this property is already dangerous. And if there is a median cut to make a left then that causes issues with dangerous left turns in & out of facility.

    I drive thru there on Braddock 4 times a day and I drive thru Braddock & Backlick intersection 3 times a day. Weekdays. I know the problems there very well.

    The fact that the Immanuel Bible Church/School has heavy traffic in & out has no relation to this matter. The fact that they were allowed doesn't mean that it's OK to make the Braddock/Backlick/Bradlick Shopping Center area worse!!

    "This is about land use, not religion or nationality." Peter Murphy, Planning Commission.

    I totally agree.

  3. Isn't there a funeral home just around the corner on Backlick Road?

    I've been to the facility in Prince William County and there were many people, not just family in attendance and the funeral procession out of the facility was enormous.

  4. Read more about Tariqel Kahn?

    1. You don't know if that is the same person.

  5. The mosque across the street is in total violation of their use permit. They open as early as 4am but their permit is only 10am to 10pm. Go figure....