A Personal Look At A Muslim Funeral Ritual

Muslim American Reshma Memon Yaqub describes her unexpected participation in one of the most important customs in the Islamic faith: washing the deceased before burial. She had to wash a woman she had only met hours before her death. Guest host Allison Keyes talks to Yaqub about her experience, which she recounted in this week's Washington Post Magazine.

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ALLISON KEYES, host:

Every week, we open up the pages of The Washington Post Magazine, looking for interesting stories about the way we live now. Today: a story about a Muslim ritual that marks a transition between life and death. By Islamic tradition, the dead must be washed for an hour, then anointed with oil before being laid to rest.

Reshma Memon Yaqub, whose parents immigrated to the United States from Pakistan, had never participated in the ritual. But then a twist of fate changed all that. She found herself washing the body of a woman she'd met only hours before.

Yaqub, a contributing writer for The Washington Post Magazine, wrote about the experience and joins me here at our Washington studio. Welcome to the show.

Ms. RESHMA MEMON YAQUB (Contributing Writer, The Washington Post Magazine): Thank you so much.

KEYES: So, who was she and how did all this happen?

Ms. YAQUB: This was the grandmother of my brother's fiance. So, she had come to attend the wedding of my younger brother, and unfortunately she passed away before the wedding. So I actually had just gone to the funeral home that day to offer emotional support to my sister-in-law and her mother, who were going to be participating in the washing of the body.

But because there was a delay on their end at the hospital and the body arrived at the funeral home and there were others waiting to help, I ended up being the family member who started with the body washing. And it was something I had never done before, and I wasn't planning to do it that day. But I was I felt very blessed and honored that I got the opportunity to do it.

KEYES: Were you nervous?

Ms. YAQUB: I wasn't nervous. You know, I think part of it was that this was not somebody that was close to me. It was not somebody that I knew. I think if I had been dealing with a family member that I had, you know, I'd been very close to, it would've been a different level of emotion. But I was just very interested in the process. It was something I had planned, that this is something I want to do because within the Muslim community, you know, everyone who dies has to be washed.

KEYES: What's the religious significance of the ritual washing?

Ms. YAQUB: It's called Ghusl, and it's sort of an extended version of the washing that you do of yourself five times a day.

KEYES: You know, actually, I think a lot of people probably don't know what that is. So can you tell us?

Ms. YAQUB: Yeah. Well, with prayer washing, first you wash your hands three times and you always start with the right side and then the left side. So you do your hands. You rinse your mouth and your nose, then your face, and you just would run your hands over your head. You would wash your arms up to the elbow, and then you'd wash your feet. But with the body washing, it's done with a little hose that you put under the sheet that's covering the body. And you wash the right side of the body, and you do each part three times, the same way you do when you're preparing for prayer.

KEYES: So it's like a purification?

Ms. YAQUB: It's - exactly. It's a purification.

KEYES: I think for a lot of people, or at least for a lot of Americans, we'd be a little freaked out. I mean, was it odd to handle the body? Was it still warm?

Ms. YAQUB: The body was still warm because she'd only been dead for, like, maybe 12 hours or so. But I wasn't freaked out. And part of it was that I really like the way that a body is handled in the Islamic tradition, because the burial is done really quickly. It's done without any sort of, like, pomp and circumstance, and the body itself has rights. You know, it has the right to be handled with extreme privacy and modesty. And you're never supposed to speak of what you've seen on the body.

KEYES: I want to ask you to read us a bit of a passage about the ritual.

Ms. YAQUB: 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 upmost 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's an unexpected scar or deformity or tattoo. In this, a human's most vulnerable of moments, she's guaranteed protection by her family and community.

KEYES: So, you mean protection from neglect or disrespect or not understanding of how important this is.

Ms. YAQUB: Yeah. Exactly. I mean, this is such an important thing to be attended to. And, unfortunately, I think a lot of times the attention is diverted to what will the funeral be like and what will, you know, will the coffin be cherry wood and have brass handles. And people forget that the focus is supposed to be on this person and maintaining their dignity and their privacy and putting them into their resting place.

KEYES: Is this a thing that you look forward to in your culture, that when your time comes, there'll be somebody to do this for you?

Ms. YAQUB: Yeah. There are certain people that I have already asked to do it for me. Two friends that I have known since I was 10 years old, the three of us have always said that we want each other to be the ones to do it for us. And, you know, sometimes we'll just jokingly - you know how kids will threaten to drop each other from their birthday party list. We'll say, well, I'm not going to let you wash my body if you do such and such.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. YAQUB: But and then there's a couple of women from the mosque where I take classes and my kids go to Sunday school, that I have asked to do it for me. There's three women there. And then traditionally, it's the people - the women from your family - or for a man it would be the men, you know, so it's the same gender that does it. Although, your spouse can also participate.

KEYES: Doesn't the act of doing this get rid of some of your sins? It's 40 sins, right?

Ms. YAQUB: Actually, I feel like the best reason to do it is it's such a reminder. It really forces you to take your head out of the sand for some time and grapple with the fact that this is going to happen to you. Are you prepared for this? Are you living your life in a way that you're going to be okay with yourself when you're lying there like that?

KEYES: Reshma Memon Yaqub is a contributing writer to The Washington Post Magazine. Thanks so much for sharing something so personal with us.

Ms. YAQUB: Thank you very much.

KEYES: We'll have a link to her story on our Web site. Just go to npr.org and click on TELL ME MORE.

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