It was a difficult day. My wife and I left weekend school early to attend the funeral prayer and burial of a community member’s father. I had also heard that another friend’s father had passed away from cancer the night before, so I couldn’t help but think of death all day. The friend was my age, and I found out that he was still on a plane headed home when his father died. Allah takes us when He pleases… As I drove to the funeral prayer of the community member, I saw dark gray clouds gather in the sky, blocking all sunlight, aligning well with my moods.
I got to the prayer just in time, and marveled afterwards at the number of community members who came to pray and honor the deceased brother. We arrived at the graveyard as the clouds began to rumble. An older gentleman led the burial in a tranquil and peaceful way. My heart ached as I witnessed the son lower his father into the grave, and fill his grave with dirt. He was so strong. He was the one reassuring others, letting them cry into his shoulders. I couldn’t imagine burying my dad, much less with such strength. To this day, I look to my father for reassurance. As a child, I only remember him breaking down once, when my grandfather died. I remember the helplessness I felt. I don’t know how others could overcome that feeling.
As we finished supplicating for the deceased father and headed back to our cars, the rain suddenly started tumbling down in large bursts. We ran for it, and barely made it to safety. The mud started to rise around us as we slowly made our way off of the grounds. We had originally planned to visit my friend’s house to give our condolences, but because the drive back was so arduous, we decided to wait a few hours and see if the storm would pass.
By God’s grace, the road conditions became more favorable by sunset, and we left after the Maghrib prayer. My wife, mom, brother, and brother-in-law packed into my car and headed down the windy, wooded road to my friend’s house. I hadn’t witnessed a friend my age losing a father in a long time, so I didn’t know what to expect. We got there as the sky was turning pitch black, passed the line of cars already parked there and rang the doorbell. Inside, I saw a gaggle of youth and adults scattered across the living room. Some adults were engaged in quiet conversation, while others simply looked silently ahead, sipping tea. The younger ones laughed and made jokes in an attempt to keep the mood light, to cope with the sadness they felt. I noticed my friend as he came near us, smiling with a resolute look on his face. We hugged and he, the affable host, thanked us for coming. He then asked me something that caught me off-guard.
“We’re about to go wash my dad’s body. Do you want to come?”
I’ve always wanted to go and help ready a fellow brother for their funeral, but I didn’t expect the opportunity to arise so suddenly. I thought I would at least have a few hours to mentally prepare before my first experience. I also never imagined the bathing could take place at night. Midnight was approaching in a few hours, and I originally assumed we would give our well wishes, drop off some food, and head back home. Still, knowing that these opportunities are far and few, I asked my mom and wife if they were okay waiting for us, and asked my brothers if they wanted to come along. I was particularly concerned about them because they were just starting their midterms, and because they were younger than me. I hoped they would be alright. They all agreed to the changed plan, so I steeled myself for the journey and began the drive to the Muslim funeral home a half-hour away.
The funeral home was nestled between warehouses in a quiet, industrial part of town. Upon entering, I saw that there were over fifteen of us that came to help. We watched as the funeral director, an elderly gentleman, wheeled out a body lying in an open casket. I walked up to it in apprehension. As I was about to look over, my friend held my arm and said that this was another Muslim brother whose family had just finished bathing him inside. I looked up and saw that the family was from Bangladesh just like us. I could hear their sobbing, see their resignation, and feel their prayers. As they left, the director gave us gloves and aprons, and motioned us inside.
This was it. I stepped inside and saw a curved slab of metal, upon which the body lay covered in a clean sheet. The room shone in a fluorescent white. There were drains everywhere to soak up the water, and lots of material in the room to assist with the cleansing: sheets, towels, buckets, soap, and camphor. As the director prepared the room, we all stood there in a stony silence. The apprehension was palpable in the room. I broke the silence and talked about how all of us would pass away and go through this ourselves. The discussion flowed after that, as we talked through the activities we were about to perform. A brother reminded us, “Before we begin, remember what we see in this room stays in this room.” He reminded us of the narration where Prophet Muhammad ﷺ said, “He who washes a Muslim and conceals what he sees (bad smell, appearance, etc), Allah grants him forgiveness forty times (or for forty major sins).” [Bayhaqi, Hakim].
The director was ready to begin by that point, and being a humble man, he politely asked if we wanted to lead the process. We glanced around but quickly deferred to him, knowing of his extensive experience. I’ve studied the rules of washing in a few Islamic studies classes before, but a lot of that knowledge went blank in my memory now that I stood in front of an actual dead body. In that moment, I felt a sense of appreciation for the imams and scholars who had to step up to the plate and take on these responsibilities. They may have not realized, as fresh graduates, that the community expected leadership, emotional support, and knowledge from them during these pivotal moments. However, so many of them took it in stride, learned along the way, and became exemplary through the process.
Following the instructions of the director, we slowly uncovered the body, making sure to keep his private areas concealed. I was struck by how peaceful my friend’s father looked. He had a faint smile on his face, looking as though he were simply sleeping. I noticed his index finger was raised slightly, in the manner Muslims raise their fingers for the proclamation of faith in One God.
We first cleaned his private areas by gently pushing on his abdomen and running a hose underneath the cloth. We followed the rituals of ablution in bathing his body, and took turns rinsing his right side three times, followed by three times on his left side. We used towels soaked in soap to softly rub the head and limbs, making sure to clean every area. We used perfume and a mixture of camphor and water to leave the brother in a fragrant manner.
As we worked, I noticed how each person reacted to the process differently. Some were in shock at the beginning, and were reluctant to get involved. A few felt queasy and stepped out, but the majority got past their initial shock and helped out. They cut up towels for us to use in wiping down each area, mixed the soap and camphor with water, readied the sheets in the casket, and ultimately helped clean the body itself. I was awed at seeing how gentle the friends of the deceased were in washing him. I paid close attention to my friend as he bathed his father. He was incredibly careful when lifting and scrubbing his father’s head and limbs. He made sure his dad was always covered appropriately, and he was diligent in making sure he performed the ablution properly. Just like in the morning, when I witnessed a son lower his dad into the grave, I was now witnessing a son perform his father’s last rites for him. It was a deeply moving moment.
Standing there, working on cleaning a deceased man for over two hours, I remembered that the scholars said our tawakkul, our reliance in Allah, should mirror that of the dependence of a body being washed for its burial. When a soul departs, the person can no longer bathe themselves, nor can they insist to others how they should be cleaned. They can do nothing but watch as they are operated upon, as life goes on around them. They have to trust those handling them, and hope they are not defiled, violated, or exposed. Such is the reality of this world. I knew that the soul would be brought back after the body was buried, but I wondered how it would be if the soul was encased in the dead body while we cleansed it. Would it feel pain and be horrified as we dealt with it? Or would it feel peace, knowing that we were taking care of it?
At last, we slowly lifted him off of the table, and lowered him into a casket covered with layers of cloth. I saw that the funeral director was smiling but that his eyes were glistening with tears, and I asked him if everything was alright. He said he was happy to see so many Muslims come to bathe their brother in honor of him, and was praying that he would have an end like that. He told me in a low voice that not everyone was so lucky. Just a few weeks ago, he had received the remains of a businessman who was a multi-millionaire when he was alive. It so happened that his wife and children had left him after a disagreement, and that he had later somehow died alone in a sprawling mansion near the nation’s capital. The sad part was that nobody realized he was dead in that residence until months later. His brothers had assumed he was busy with work and traveling, and therefore didn’t contact him for a long time. When they realized it had been months since they last talked to him, they tried to contact him, but quickly found out they didn’t even know where he lived. The last they knew, he was living somewhere in Dubai.
They eventually pieced out he had moved to America, and after calling several police stations, they were able to find a report that mentioned an unclaimed body matching their description. The report mentioned that a neighbor had complained to the police of a terrible stench from the house next door. When the police went to investigate, they came across the dead body inside the mansion. The man had severely decomposed, with only bones and some meat left on him. There were flies and maggots found all over the remains, still tearing it to shreds. The funeral director quietly told us that he had to douse him with chemicals, and remarked how different today was, compared to that haunting experience. Both of these people had been well-off, but it was through the mercy of God that in our case, the deceased was well-respected, surrounded by loved ones, and taken care of every step of the way. It goes to show how wealth doesn’t mean anything on its own. Family and community are the things that matter most. May Allah protect us and give us a peaceful and blessed ending.
On our way out, we hugged the family and shared our condolences and words of support. I prayed for my friend, and reminded him to stay close and take special care of his grieving mom and younger brother. We then made our way back to their house, picked up my mom and wife, and headed home. The rain had calmed by now. The clock was ticking past midnight, and everybody in the car was drained, absorbed in their thoughts. I asked my brother and brother-in-law what they thought of the experience, and they both mentioned how they saw their own fathers as they scrubbed the body. They remarked that the deceased brother even resembled their fathers, sporting a similar beard, and it was dawning on them that our parents would pass away one day too. We will have to possess the strength and courage to wash our own fathers before they returned to Allah.
Reflecting on that day, I see so many parallels. From the water raining down during the day to the water rinsing all away at night, from the son burying his dad to the son bathing his dad, from the community coming to pray to the community coming to wash. I saw the gloomy clouds recede into the sky, and watched as constellations of divine signs formed.