Say: ‘Death, from which you are fleeing, will certainly catch up with you. Then you will be returned to the Knower of the Unseen and the Visible and He will inform you about what you used to do.’ Al-Jumu’a 62/8.
The article He Shows Mercy to the Dead in the LA Times struck a chord with me. One evening, I received a call from a sister I did not know. This sister had been called by a funeral home that had received a Muslim woman. The woman’s family wanted their grandmother (the deceased) whom they said had been very religious to have the ritual washing due to every Muslim upon death.
The woman was to be buried the next day so the family wanted someone to wash and wrap the body early the next morning. The sister that had been called by the funeral home began to make urgent phone calls to other sisters in the community who might be available around 8am the next day which happened to fall on a weekday. She called a mutual friend of ours to ask her to help but she couldn’t because she had to work. So, she gave her my number.
I returned her call and told her I could make it tomorrow at 8am for this sister that none of us knew. I arrived first at the funeral home. This was my first time in a funeral home and it felt awkward to see that there were people that worked there as a normal 9-5 type job promoting and selling their services to the living relatives of the dead.
Alhamdulillah, three other sisters also showed up and then we met with the funeral home director in the conference room. He was a tall man that somewhat resembled a larger version of Virigina Senator George Allen. He told us that the body (our sister in Islam) was in bad shape. She had been in her seventies and had suffered 3rd degree burns over most of her body.
Then we met her grandson who served as the family representative. He told us that she was religious, she would want to have been washed, and that she had picked out the cloths that she wanted to be buried in. He also said thank-you on behalf of the family and gave us a check.
The funeral director, the 3 sisters, and I descended the stairs into the washing and preparation room in the basement of the funeral home. There we put on plastic aprons and gloves provided by the funeral home and prepared to meet our sister.
We slowly uncovered her while being careful not to uncover her awrah and were shocked by the amount of damage the burns had caused to her body. There was very little intact skin and a lot of blood. We used the water sparingly and tried our best to wash off as much blood and other fluids from our sister all the while making dua for her. After expending considerable effort we decided to make tayammun for her and then to wrap her in the cloths she had purchased while still alive.
Her grandson had told us in the conference room that she was shia and asked if we were shia. One said yes and the other three said no. So as her family stated were her wishes, her coffin was lined with fresh soil, she was wrapped in somewhat coarse cloth that contained ayat of Quran and images of what I think was the Imam Ali masjid in Iraq, and some clay objects with ayat on them.
We had a short and civil debate as to whether we should add some of the items to the coffin. We were split 2-2. Two wanted to leave aside the items and two wanted to bury the items with her but in the end it was decided by the funeral home to bury her with the items. And later, I asked Shaykh Waleed Basyouni if what we did was correct and he said that it was not a problem.
The funeral director was very accommodating and we called him after we finished wrapping her to help us lift her into the coffin.
It was an incredibly humbling experience. The whole process took about three hours, much longer than usual due to the extent of her wounds. As we left the funeral director asked for our phone numbers so that he could keep a list of Muslims in case they had another case of a sister needing to be washed. He said they already had a list of brothers that could be reached to help wash a Muslim male. So we added our contact info to the list and began to walk to our cars in the parking lot.
I wanted information on her janazah so I could attend but it seems that she may not have had a janazah.
As we left, one of the sisters wrote out checks to each of us dividing the amount our sister’s grandson had given us into 4. We each received $87.50 for our efforts although we would have gladly done it for free.
In sha Allah, a day will come when our souls will depart from our bodies and we will no longer be able to do anything for ourselves. May Allah subhanhu wa ta ala have mercy on those who wash and show mercy to the dead. Ameen.