A Muslim Funeral in North America

Shemeem Burney Abbas mourns her sister

A Muslim Funeral in North America
April 11, 2019
Elmsford, New York

My dear Kakko:

We, your sisters mourn you since you went on Friday, March 08. Gigi, Pappo and I. We share our grief every evening on the phone. We weep. We text your daughters, Aisha, Maaria and Mariam regularly as with you gone, we feel responsible for them.

You left your entire world behind: your husband, your children, your grandchildren, we your sisters, your nieces and your lovely home. All your tapestries and Pakistani artifacts.

I’ve seen so many family deaths in Pakistan but the lonesomeness of your going is unforgettable. Death, back home in Pakistan, is socialized – with so much of the community and family around us that we are not aware of the pitifulness of death. Family and friends sit with the corpse throughout the night if the burial has to be in the morning. Even otherwise, the corpse is never left alone. Siparas from the Quran are read, as is zikr done on date pits.

Women’s Janaza Service in Dearborn, MichiganWomen’s Janaza Service in Dearborn, Michigan

You were taken away all by yourself. Your body was stored in the Islamic Center’s freezer vault. The next morning your three daughters, Aisha, Maaria and Mariam with other women of the Islamic Center’s Burial Committee gave you the ghusul, the Islamic ritual bath.

In North America and most likely in most of the West, young Muslim females train to perform the ritual ghusul for a female’s corpse on a voluntary basis. It is an accomplishment and part of their training as Muslim women. This is seldom done in Muslim households in South Asia, although older women do partake in the ritual. Professional female corpse-bathers perform the ghusul; they are paid for their services.

It happened to be a Saturday the next morning for your janaza. You died the evening before, on a Friday. The women bathed you at 11 AM on Saturday. When we got to the Islamic Center, your body lay on a stretcher in the women’s section of the large Islamic Center. You were draped in a red chador with gold tinsels on it, pretty much like a bride’s cover. You died a “suhagan,” a female whose husband is still alive. For a widow’s corpse it may perhaps have been a green or black chador.
“Joe Fredlick, your Jewish employer, moved to the male section from where he was with us in the women’s section. He folded his hands on his belly and made all the motions that the other worshippers made”

Your death had been announced on the Islamic Center’s email listserv. It being your janaza and also the time for the zuhur prayers, close to fifteen hundred men, women and children showed up. Our family that includes, your family, our other sister Pappo and my daughter Chere, have lived in St. Louis for more than forty years now. Darul Islam, the Islamic Center, is almost the same age. Forty years since it was built.

The congregation was huge.

Your work family from Décor, the jewelry business where you worked, also attended the janaza. Close to ten of them came. The men were dressed in traditional black suits with ties, the women wore black dresses. I hosted both your female and male colleagues in the women’s section where your body lay. Our family were the only mourners that your American colleagues knew. We could not allow your male colleagues to be sent out into the segregated male section where they did not know anyone. Our males, including your husband Wahid, were somewhere in the congregation accepting condolences from the vast Muslim community in St. Louis.

After the noon zuhur prayers, an imam in a long white thobe came to the female section. He rolled your stretcher. The wide wooden door that partitioned the female and male section was now open.

“Where are you taking her?” I asked the imam.

“We’re going to pray over her,” said the Arabic-accented imam.

He rolled you away to the front of the congregation of male participants. I followed the imam and stood in the doorway between the two sections. This was the first time I saw a namaz-e-janaza performed. At home in Pakistan, all such rituals are performed in the male domain. I noticed that the namaz-e-janaza is performed with hands folded on the belly. Participants do not go into sajda or prostration. Sajda or prostration is performed only for the Deity and therefore not a part of the namaz-e-janaza for a human being.

A Mosque in St. Louis

“These are misinformed oncologists who believe if a cancer does not recur within five years, you’re cured. Being a three-time carcinoma survivor myself, I don’t agree. The cobra sits in your body and surfaces like a bombshell”

Joe Fredlick, your Jewish employer, moved to the male section from where he was with us in the women’s section. He folded his hands on his belly and made all the motions that the other worshippers made. Since I observed it all happen in the men’s section with the wide opening, I assume that the women’s section upstairs made the same motions as the men’s downstairs. A male imam downstairs led your namaz-e-janaza.

I followed you, Kakko, wherever the stretcher with the red chador rolled. Suddenly, through the main entrance to the Islamic Center, I saw ten bearded men carry you on an open wooden casket that had handle bars to it. They were your pallbearers. Five on each side. Within seconds they had shoved you up in the open casket, in the waiting black limousine which was the hearse. The red chador still covered you. And, then the hearse sped off. I was dumbfounded.

“Where are the family’s males?” I wondered.

I saw Arif, our brother-in-law, stand near the stairs where the bearded ones loaded you and sped off. Arif, I think, was as surprised as I was. This is not how it’s done at home, I kept wondering. It’s the family’s males who pick up the open cradle in which the body lies, covered in a black cloth with the gold embroidered shahada. On top is a sheet of flowers: roses, marigolds, jasmine and all. Here, there was nothing of the kind. Strangers loaded you into the hearse. I ran into your husband, Wahid, briefly. He was totally lost, in absolute shock, surrounded by people from the community who offered condolences. The five of us then, i.e. Gigi, Arif, our sister Pappo, her husband Qaiser and I drove to the cemetery where your body had already arrived with no one in the funeral cortege. Nor was anyone in the family there to receive you. It was all so helter-skelter. People got lost as they tried to find the Lakewood Park Cemetery. Some male from the Islamic Center was in charge of the funeral arrangements. That’s not enough, I thought. He yelled and shouted at your grave as preparations were made to lower you into your final resting place. You would have been as upset as we were, given that you were such an organized person yourself. An absolute perfectionist.

Kakko (Right) and Gigi (Left), 1972

We, your sisters, minded our own business as we left it to your immediate family and the in-laws. They claim that this is how funerals are done in Muslim North America. I have heard otherwise.

A white non-Muslim, Rick, was the driver for the excavator that dug up your burial chamber. Rick lowered you into your final, last resting place. He was most respectful. You were placed on the open wooden casket in which you were carried from the Islamic Center. While Rick stood in the grave with his boots on, Ryan, Joe, Ali and Chisti held on to the ropes as your casket was lowered down – for Rick to receive. The area was slippery from the morning rain and the mounds of dug-up dirt made it even more challenging. Chisti’s large boots were covered in white plastic. He was the tallest and strongest among the men, and was therefore right in front, steering the ropes that carried your open casket. The team battled until Rick, down in the chamber, received your casket securely. He was tall and strong. You were laid to rest with your face toward Mecca. A few wooden planks covered your body and then dirt was poured on you. The major part of the dirt was moved by the excavator that Rick steered. The family’s lads, i.e. your grandsons: Omar, Yusuf, Adam and Eli, and my grandsons Zayn and Raza, put some dirt with their spades on you. The young boys took it as a game. Nora watched in bewilderment, in her mother Maaria’s arms. A few days earlier, on Thursday, the day before you left this world, your grandchildren had said goodbye to you in tears. Their beloved Nano was going.

We women, about forty of us, watched, close to your grave. Your daughters, their friends, my daughter Chere, my granddaughter Zara, our sister Pappo, at the same time your jithani, sister-in-law and her daughter Saira watched. So did our sister Gigi and her three daughters. They came from Baltimore for your janaza. We all wore black. And, we all wept for you. Although the rain poured in the morning, by the time of your burial, the bright sun had surfaced. We finished performing your last rituals around 4:00 P.M. By then, we were all so drained that we went home.

Gigi, our youngest sister, hosted the last meal for you in your house. It was plain rice with chicken ordered from Al-Riyaz restaurant. The night before that, on Friday evening, when you left us, and after Abdulla drove you away, Chere and Ambreen hosted the evening dinner with food from Al-Riyaz: chicken curry, aloo gosht, naans and rice that were all laid out on the kitchen counter, buffet style. The children’s pizza came from a home delivery.

Thank goodness for the large tabbar (clan) that we are in North America. We supported each other as well as you and your family. We flew in frequently from all over North America or Canada, wherever we were, to see you. We knew you had limited time. This final stage was your third recurrence.

You were ever so hopeful of your recovery as you’d fought the earlier two episodes with courage and grace. Your three daughters opened their eyes to the world to see their mother in a perennial state of cancer. And, you were brave for them. This time, too, you fought. Even took on the horrendous trial treatments with the hellish chemotherapy and radiation regimens that also included liver surgery.

Your carcinoma had metastasized: it got into your liver, your bones and your spinal cord. It was all over. These are misinformed oncologists who believe that if a cancer does not recur within five years, you’re considered cured. Being a three-time carcinoma survivor myself, I don’t agree with the oncologists on this. The cobra sits in your body and surfaces like a bombshell. Given your history of the recurrence within the sixth year and my own experience, I say: once a cancer patient, always a cancer patient.

Your last American MD did not follow up on your maintenance therapy despite the fact that you told him continuously that your left arm hurt. He lived under the delusion that after the fifth year of being cancer-free, you were good to go. It was your Iranian primary care doctor, a woman, who ran tests on you to discover that your cancer had advanced incurably. She came into the picture when you changed insurances to enroll into Medicare. Hence, you got her as your new doctor.

Despite the fact that in your telephone conversations and texts you always said,

Shimba, I’m afraid,” and “Shimba, I’m scared,” we saw how, to the very end, you held on.

Chere now tells us that you shared your nightmares with her: you saw zombies in your dreams, who made faces at you. They woke you up with a fright. Perhaps, they were our munker-nakir.

You and I had a strong bond: we shared our experiences of the most aggressive of cancers: The Emperor of Maladies as Siddharta Mukerjee calls it in his recent book and video on the subject of carcinoma. Though one of our sisters, too, had it but not with the aggression of our kind. You weren’t ready to go.

Whenever you said, “I’m afraid. I’m scared”, I always said to you,

“Kakko, I wish I could give you my life. I’ve lived long enough, done whatever I wanted to do.

I’m ready to go”

But, alas we can’t choose our lives.

(to be continued)

Shemeem Burney Abbas is the Doris and Karl Kempner Distinguished Professor

for Political Science, Gender Studies and Literature in the State University of New York at Purchase. Additionally, she was the Juanita and Joseph Leff Distinguished Professor from 2009-2011. She is the author of ‘Pakistan’s Blasphemy Laws: From Islamic Empires to The Taliban’, and ‘The Female Voice in Sufi Ritual: Devotional Practices of Pakistan and India’.

Website: www.shemeem.com