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

By Reshma Memon Yaqub
Sunday, March 21, 2010; W18

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.

I stand by Dadee's feet, on her right side, and watch the women gently lift and rock Dadee to free her from the body bag. She's still dressed in her blue-and-white hospital gown. One of the women slowly lifts the gown, while another drapes Dadee with one of the same long aprons that we are all wearing. Not for one moment are any private areas of the body exposed. In the ritual Islamic bathing, the body is to be given the utmost respect. Not only is it to stay covered at all times, but the washers are to remain forever silent about anything negative or unusual they may witness -- for example, if there is an unexpected scar, or deformity, or tattoo. In this, a human's most vulnerable of moments, she is guaranteed protection by her family and community.

It is time to begin the washing. A thin rubber hose is attached to the faucet in the utility sink, and one of the women turns on the water, adjusting it until it is comfortably warm, as prescribed by Islamic tradition. Because I'm the only "relative" in the room, I'm expected to perform the lion's share of the washing, but the women see that I have no idea what I'm doing, so they resume control, leaving me in charge of the feet. The first time I touch Dadee's feet, I am surprised. I expect the corpse to be cold, but it feels warm. Then again, she left this shell less than a day earlier. Perhaps these things take time.

A Muslim's body is generally washed three times from head to toe with soap and clean water. The right side is washed first, then the left. During the final washing, a softly fragranced oil is rubbed onto the body. The body has to be repeatedly tilted from one side to the other, and it is harder than I expected to maneuver the dead weight of a human form. Dadee's feet keep getting in the way of the hole at the bottom of the table, and every few minutes, the water pools up there and I have to lift her leg.

Fifteen minutes into the washing, my brother's fiancee and her mother knock at the door. The granddaughter is too distraught to join in and watches tearfully from the doorway. But Dadee's daughter-in-law dons the gear and steps into her family role. She is understandably traumatized, having been the one to find Dadee collapsed at their home in Columbia last night and having performed CPR to try to revive her. This is her first time washing a body, too. I can't tell if she wants me to stay and keep washing, or leave, because we've met just a handful of times in the three months since my brother proposed to her daughter. But she doesn't say anything, so I stay.

***

Washing a body in this way, it's impossible not to flash forward to your own ending. I have lain on a table like this before, draped strategically with white cloth, comforting hands laid on me. But that was just for a massage at the Red Door Spa. When I imagine my own washing, I see myself being handled by loved ones: my two oldest friends, Farin and Sajeela; my brothers' wives; my mother and mother-in-law. I've also asked two women at my mosque whom I adore to participate. Maybe I'll live long enough to have a daughter-in-law in the room with me. Should I be so lucky, even a granddaughter. The more I see, the more I appreciate the way a Muslim's body is handled after death. There is so much gentleness, so much privacy. The body isn't left unattended in the short span between death and burial. It unnerves me when, walking through the funeral home's hallway, I look into a room and see a dead man lying on a gurney, unattended. I wonder how long he has been there, how he has been handled, who has had access to him. Whether the water that ran over his body was warmed.

The body-washers pass the rubber hose back and forth to each other and to me and my soon-to-be relative, who strokes her mother-in-law's hair and washes it. At the end, we dry Dadee with clean white towels and slide several towels underneath her, with their edges hanging over the sides of the gurney. We then roll her gurney into the adjacent room where the coffin awaits for her transport to the mosque. We station her gurney next to a second one, where one of the women has already laid out Dadee's funeral shroud, called a kafan, made of five white cloths of different sizes. We use the towels underneath Dadee as handles to lift her to the second gurney. Pieces of the white fabric are folded around Dadee's body and secured with ropelike strands of the same cloth. One of the volunteers, Rabia Marfani, assembles these fabric kits at home, using cotton/polyester bed sheets that she buys at Wal-Mart.

When the cloth that wraps the hair back is tied on Dadee, she seems strangely transported. She looks so small and fragile, like a little girl with a bonnet tied around her hair. Finally, a large cloth is folded around the entire body, completely enclosing her. It's tied shut with the ropelike strands, and the body looks almost like a wrapped gift. Together we lift Dadee into the coffin. One of the women shows me and Dadee's daughter-in-law how to open the fabric around Dadee's face, should any of her family members ask to see her one last time at the Janazah prayer service at the mosque.

Afterward, I hug each of the body-washers and thank them deeply for their help. Although Dadee is not exactly my relative, I feel as though these women have done me a huge personal favor, expecting nothing in return. When I ask Marfani why she has participated in this custom more than 30 times in her 50 years, she replies: "It's our obligation. And there is so much reward from God. ... One day I will also be lying there, and somebody will do this for me." She started as a teenager in Pakistan, assisting when her grandmother and aunt passed away. She encourages younger women to volunteer or just watch, because this knowledge needs to be passed on.

We all then raise our hands and pray, asking God to forgive Dadee's sins, to give her the best in the next life. I inwardly alternate between speaking to God and speaking to Dadee. I ask God to welcome her; I wish Dadee good luck on this ultimate pilgrimage. Islam teaches us that after the soul is removed from the body, it briefly faces God to learn its fate, then is returned to the body while on its way to the grave. There it awaits its full reckoning on the Day of Judgment. Though Dadee is no longer of this world, she can continue to earn blessings based on what she has left behind -- through righteous offspring who pray for her forgiveness, through knowledge that she has spread to others, or through charitable work whose effects outlast her.

I pray for Dadee, and I also apologize to her for a mistake she doesn't know I nearly made. In today's mail, after the funeral, Dadee's family will receive my hand-addressed invitation to her for a wedding reception hosted by my parents. Earlier this week, I had argued with my brother over the unnecessary expense of mailing separate invitations to multiple family members at the same address. I had considered just sending a joint one. In the end, how grateful I am that I did it his way. Of course you deserve your own invitation, Dadee, after flying across the world to witness your granddaughter's wedding.

I ask God one last time to have mercy on her soul. As I pick up my purse and turn to leave the room, I address my final words to both of them: "Innaa lillaahi wa-innaa ilaihi raje'oon." To God we belong, and to God we return.

Reshma Memon Yaqub is a frequent contributor to the Magazine. Her last cover story was about a couple's choice to continue a pregnancy in which their daughter died soon after birth. She can be reached at wpmagazine@washpost.com.

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