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A distant relative – one I was not sure I'd even met – had had a heart-attack the previous day yet due to him not being that old we had a long wait while tests were carried out. During the wait I met with many relatives I still had not seen since arriving 5-months previous, we consciously kept the smiles to a minimum whilst catching up. In between this my father helped piece together the family tree while I attempted to figure out both my association and theirs to our late relative.
"These are the bodies after they have been washed" pointed out the friend of the family. "These ones have not been claimed" he went on. My confused face prompted him to explain further, "Maybe they have been murdered or in a car accident". One of them had definitely been in a car accident by the shape of the white cloth that tightly wrapped around it's body. "This one again, no name" he said while I watched two distressed men unwrap one of the three bodies to look at the face. "They photograph them before they take them for burial..." he added before we were interrupted and asked to help load them to the car waiting outside.
We followed the railings where a line of wrapped bodies entered a small hole in the wall leading to the washing and wrapping room beside a narrow viewing corridor. We were separated by the dense crowd pushing and pulling, struggling to get a glimpse of their loved ones through the slim windows. It was the same when we returned with our late relative. "He's here", called my dad who had allowed some room for me to look in.
Two men lifted his naked body into a shallow stone bath, his stitched chest from the autopsy triggered a murmur through the onlooking family. A small cloth was placed over his genitals and the washing commenced. Would I want to see my dad like this I thought whilst looking at our late relative's son who, for the first time, gave up the solid stance and dropped his first tear. He, like others, were then comforted and led out as their uncontrolled shrieks brought the room to silence.
There was too much to watch and too little did I understand. What is that liquid for? What is the green powder for? What is this procedure for? The body exited the room and we collectively lifted the stretcher, exited the building to join the women who waited outside. After walking a short distance shouting, "There is no God other than Allah" repeatedly, we placed the body down in a sheltered area where other parties conducted similar prayers. Hands rushed down to the body with tears following. Women shrieked out, "Uncle!", "Brother!", "Dad!", "Son", as they grabbed at any available body part.
As we went through various symbolic stages of this burial, the chesty cries and shuddering shrieks chipped away at me. I considered that Muslim burials are very public: the pain is very much on show. There seemed to be no climax, the cries got louder as we past each stage of the actual burial itself. During the hysteric shrieks of the women I couldn't help but think that they thought he would hear their statements and requests – it confused me that they were like this, yet this I learned is very much how Islam presents death: they shake the bodies in the grave whilst asking the person to remember all his Imams and of course his God.
I asked the family friend how many times he'd been to this place, "more than twenty?" I enquired. "Try more than 50" he replied. It sat in my mind that I would return many more times myself, I looked around at all the family and tried not to imagine each occasion. We all have our last time, but we will not drop a tear on that occasion.