The Washing: In the Muslim custom of bathing the dead, she found a deep sense of reward -- and shaved off 40 sins

Body Washing
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By Reshma Memon Yaqub
Sunday, March 21, 2010

I hadn't planned to wash the corpse.

But sometimes you just get caught up in the moment.

Through a series of slight miscalculations, I am the first of the deceased woman's relatives to arrive at the March Funeral Home in west Baltimore on this Monday morning. The body of the woman whom everyone in the family refers to simply as Dadee, which means "grandmother" in Urdu, is scheduled to arrive at 10 a.m., after being released from Howard County General Hospital in Columbia. I get to the funeral home at 10 a.m. and make somber chitchat with the five women from the local mosque who have volunteered to help with funeral preparations, which includes washing the deceased's body.

According to Islamic practices, family members of the same gender as the deceased are expected to bathe and shroud the body for burial. But because it's such a detailed ritual and because so many second-generation American Muslim families have yet to bury a loved one here, mosques have volunteers to assist grieving families. These women have come from the Islamic Society of Baltimore, where Dadee's funeral prayer service will be held this afternoon.

When the body arrives at 11:30 a.m., I am still the only family member here, and the body-washers naturally usher me in to join them for the ritual cleansing. It feels too late to tell them that technically I'm not a relative. When I first met the women an hour ago and spoke to them in my halting Urdu, it seemed unnecessary to explain that I was only about to become Dadee's relative. That she was the visiting grandmother of the woman engaged to marry my younger brother. That she had flown in from South Africa just 10 days earlier to attend the upcoming wedding. That the only time I'd ever seen Dadee was last night at the hospital, a few hours after she died of sudden cardiac arrest, and then I hadn't even seen her face. When I had arrived at the hospital after getting the call from my brother, a white sheet was already drawn up over Dadee's face and tucked around her slight, eight-decade-old frame.

But the body-washers are understandably in a bit of a hurry. They've been kept waiting. And these genuinely kind women, five middle-age homemakers, have their own responsibilities to get back to. I call my brother's fiancee to tell her the women want to start the hour-long washing, and she gives the go-ahead because she and her parents are still at the hospital. I tell the washers they can start, and they look at me expectantly. "Let's go," they say in Urdu. "Uh, okay," I reply. It's not that I don't want to wash the body. It's actually something I've wanted to experience for a while. Earlier in the year, I told the funeral coordinator at my mosque to keep me in mind if the need ever arose when I'm available. A few years ago, I attended a day-long workshop on how to perform the ritual. It's just, I didn't think today was going to be the day. I didn't think this was going to be my first body. I had come here, on this fall day in 2008, only to offer emotional support to my future sister-in-law and her mother.

I mutely follow the women through a heavy door marked "Staff Only," then down a flight of concrete stairs into the recesses of the funeral home. I'm starting to feel as though I'm trapped in one of those old "I Love Lucy" episodes, where Lucille Ball finds herself stomping grapes or smuggling cheese and has no idea how to stop this runaway train. We reach a large open room, where I see some gurneys and a simple coffin -- upholstered in blue fabric with a white interior. Another doorway leads into a smaller private room that has been set up for ritual washings such as these, one of the volunteers tells me. From the doorway, I see Dadee's form in her hospital-issue white body bag, zipped all the way up. She is lying on a metal gurney, which, with its slightly raised edges, looks like a giant jellyroll pan. It has a quarter-size hole at the bottom, near Dadee's feet, and the silver tray is tilted slightly so the water we will use drains into a utility sink.

***

I am not afraid of dead bodies. I have seen one up close three times in my 36 years: in high school at the funeral of a friend's father; as a police reporter when I took a tour of the local morgue; and more recently when a friend's ill baby died. But this is the first time I will touch a corpse, and that I am a little nervous about. But I'm also grateful for the opportunity. In Islam, it is a tremendous honor to give a body its final cleansing. The reward is immense -- the erasure of 40 major sins from your lifetime's record. Few people I know have ever washed a body. Because my parents and their peers moved here from Pakistan as young adults, most of them missed the natural opportunity to wash their own parents' or grandparents' bodies when they passed away overseas. And because few of my Muslim peers have lost their parents, we are two generations that don't know what to do when the time comes.

I feel blessed not to be experiencing my first washing with one of my own loved ones, when I would be numb from loss. I would have had little time to prepare myself because Muslims are buried immediately after death -- the same day when possible. There is no embalming, no makeup, no Sunday finery for the deceased. There is no wake, no long speech, no cherry wood coffin with brass handles. There is simply the ritual washing, the shrouding in plain white cloth, a funeral prayer that lasts five minutes, and then the burial -- preferably the body straight into the dirt, but, when required by law, placed in a basic coffin.

Body-washers put on sterile scrubs to protect us from whatever illness may have stricken the deceased. First I tie on a large paper apron. Then come rubber gloves. I see one of the women pull on a second pair of gloves over the first, and I follow. Next are puffy paper sleeves that attach from elbow to wrist and are tucked into the gloves. Then big paper booties. And finally a face mask with a large transparent plastic eye shield. By the end, I look like a cross between an overzealous nail technician and a Transformer.

I watch the women unzip Dadee from her body bag. As it opens, I see her face for the first time. Muslims believe that at the moment of death, when a soul that's headed to heaven emerges from its body, it slips out as easily as a drop of water spilling from a jug. But a soul that's headed to less heavenly places emerges with great difficulty, like a thorny branch being ripped through a pile of wet wool. I'm relieved that Dadee's face is peaceful, the way you hope somebody's grandmother's face would appear.


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