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Muslim rituals of death

Emma Brown

"I hadn't planned to wash the corpse.
But sometimes you just get caught up in the moment."

So begins a gripping and intimate account, in this weekend's Post magazine, of the Muslim way of preparing a relative's body for burial.

"There is no embalming, no makeup, no Sunday finery for the deceased," writes Reshma Memon Yaqub, a frequent magazine contributor.

"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."

In Islam, we learn, those who wash the body are absolved of 40 major sins. The body is never left unattended between death and burial. Anything unusual or embarrassing that's revealed during the washing -- a tattoo, say, which is forbidden because you are to return to heaven the same way you arrived on earth -- is kept secret by those who have seen their loved one at her most vulnerable.

Every faith has a tradition to honor the dead, of course -- in the Baha'i faith, the corpse must be buried within an hour's travel distance of the place of death. In Judaism, families observe shiva, the seven-day mourning period in which mourners traditionally cover mirrors, avoid wearing leather and sit on low stools.

But others of us come from no faith, or have left faith behind -- and how will we say goodbye?

Yaqub's story, and her nod to the way in which her generation is losing touch with tradition, will resonate with anyone who appreciates the power of ritual in dealing with death.

"Few people I know have ever washed a body," she writes.

"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."

By Emma Brown  |  March 19, 2010; 3:07 PM ET
Categories:  Emma Brown , Funerals  
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