The day I had dreaded for so long had finally come, the day my mother-in-law left this world. I had dreaded it because I knew that once she was gone I had lost the one person in my husband’s family who was totally, without question,’ in my corner’, I dreaded it for my husband and his brothers and sisters’ sake in losing their Mum, and for my children in losing their grandmother. I also dreaded it because Algerian funerals are often huge and my mother-in-law’s home is tiny and the funerals go on for days, so I was anxious about the combination of claustrophobia and exhaustion I anticipated was ahead of me.
As it turns out it was a learning curve for me, and an honour to share in the grieving process of the family, and in helping out when and where I could. The most difficult funeral is the one you can’t attend. I wasn’t able to be at my father’s, mother’s, aunt’s and nephew’s funerals, and as a result the grieving process was more difficult for me and definitely more lonely. To see your loved one in his or her final lifeless state is shocking, but also the beginning of the acceptance that they are gone. The tears that flow freely, do so along with those around you who also loved this person, and nobody tries to stop you or to comfort you, because we are all in the same stage of shock, and so these tears do their work of gently healing your pain of loss, although it never feels like it at the time. Returning home months after my Dad, Mum and Aunt had died meant that I felt that shock and absence then….when the rest of my family had moved on further down the road of grief and acceptance. It means that you are totally out of step with the rest of your loved ones, bursting into tears at the most unexpected and embarrassing moments.
I discovered that, apart from some very basic, religious differences, funerals in my husband’s family are not that much different to those of my own in Ireland. Maybe this is because both cultures are rooted in the belief that this life is just a passing through, and nothing is more certain than death, after which there is an afterlife. I cannot speak for my own generation but I know that both of my parents believed in trying to live a good life as much as possible, that there was a better life to be had after death, and that, although it was not something to look forward to, at the same time it was something accepted, prepared for and freely talked about.
In Ireland people are usually buried the next day if their body is released early enough or the day after. Sometimes the funeral is delayed to allow for someone to travel back from abroad but usually the funeral takes place as soon as possible. My Mum and Dad were both buried two days after they passed away with people coming to the house to visit, some bringing various edibles such as scones, sandwiches, cakes etc – something that can be served with a cup of tea or coffee. Then on the day of the funeral the family usually prepares a light meal such as sandwiches and soup primarily for those who had to travel long distances for the funeral, and this meal is usually done through a pub with a room set aside to cater for the mourners. People tell stories about the loved one who has just gone, and there is a lot of laughter among the tears. My own family seem to have its own unique, quirky take on funerals, often with hysterically funny results, but which would seem strange and unfeeling to outsiders……until I heard some of the stories after my mother-in-law’s funeral. I then realised why my husband fits into my family so well - he comes from the same kind of quirky, off kilter family as me!
When we arrived at my mother-in-law’s home she was laid out on blankets and sheets on the floor and totally covered, with my sisters-in-law, my husband’s aunt and neighbours, all women, sitting around. Every time someone came in they moved the sheet off of her face so they could kiss her. Obviously it was a very emotional time, but it was also a very calm and serene time, a time of waiting with nothing to do but pray for her soul. We all had to move into the bedroom at one stage while the female doctor (in full hijab mashAllah) came in with a policeman to pronounce the death and issue a death certificate, and then the women started to clear the third room in the tiny apartment in preparation for the washing of my mother-in-law’s body. Three women from the neighbourhood, whose job it is to do this, came and started making preparations to pray Dhuhr. Soon after, the long table, with a slight slant towards a plug hole at one end, was manoeuvred with great difficulty into the room. Basins of water were brought in with an empty one placed beneath the hole in the table. Three large pieces of cloth were removed from their packaging and opened out and then rolled up lengthways and put to one side. Rubbish bags, two large bath towels along with smaller towels, face cloths, floor cloths, shower gel and perfume were all accumulated, and my daughter pounded some camphor, or as we used to call them, moth balls, into a fine powder. Then my mother-in-law’s body was gently brought in and placed on the table, the family said their goodbyes and left the room and then the door was gently and firmly closed.
My eldest had already asked if she could be present while they washed her grandmother’s body, and then one of the ladies turned to me and asked if I’d like to stay. I hadn’t considered it possible, but when I thought about it I felt that this was an opportunity I could not pass up for so many good reasons. There is a hadith that states that the Prophet Muhammad (SAWS) said ‘"He who washes a Muslim and conceals what he sees (i.e. bad odors, appearance, and anything loathsome), Allah grants him forgiveness forty times (or for forty major sins)’. This was the last thing I could do for my mother-in-law and, as such I felt it a privilege and honour to do it. I knew it would make my husband happy and I thought it was so nice that there were three people in the room who knew her well and loved her who could help in preparing her for her final journey, so my daughters and I stayed and helped, just a little.
The women were very gentle and respectful and did everything without once exposing the body, which was covered with a large table cloth – the kind that has one waterproof side. As everything that is done in that room is something to be kept private and not discussed I will not give any details of the cleaning of her body per se. But the following is the ritual as found on an internet search:
Firstly, the body should be carefully laid on its back on a washing table. A large towel should be placed over the 'awrah (private parts, between the navel and the knee) of the deceased. Next, the clothing of the deceased should be removed, cutting whatever is not easy to slide off. The joints should be loosened, and slight pressure may be applied to the abdomen to expel any impurities that are close to exiting. The private parts of the deceased should be washed very well. A rag or cloth should be used to wash the body and the washing should begin with the places on the side of the body washed during wudu' (ablution). After completing the wudu, the hair should be thoroughly washed. Any tied or braided hair should be undone. Next, the body should be washed a minimum of three times and the water should have some cleaning agent in it, such as soap or disinfectant. The final washing should have some perfume in it, such as camphor or the like. The body should then be dried and the hair combed. In the case of a woman, if possible, her hair should be arranged in three plaits – one on either side of her head and one on top. The body is now ready for shrouding.
The women explained that camphor mixed with the last wash enables the body to dry more efficiently. We lifted her body and the three white rolled up cloths were unrolled beneath her so that she lay in the center, with the waterproof cover still covering her. Then without removing this cover the top white cloth was taken from one side and wrapped around her body, and then wrapped with the other side. The top of this cloth was left as a covering that framed her face loosely in case any of her male relatives wanted to see her before she was buried when it would then be closed. Once her body was decently covered the waterproof cover was removed from beneath it. Then the second cloth was wrapped from the second side and so on. As we were doing this one of the women reminded me that in Algeria when a baby is born and for some months afterwards it is wrapped similarly in a blanket - what we call swaddling, and I thought of how my mother-in-law had come full circle. Then it is tied with plain white ties, at the top and bottom and in the middle and, if necessary with two extra ties. Then they covered the body with a green cloth with gold Arabic writing on it, but this is only to cover her while she is still in the house and is removed when they bring the body to the mosque.
My grandmother died in our home when I was the same age as my youngest, around 14, and a neighbourhood nurse (who incidentally became my brother’s mother-in-law) came in and cleaned her body in preparation for the burial, and, to this day the smell of Johnson’s Baby Powder brings me right back to that day. In the same way I think the smell of camphor will always remind me of the day my mother-in-law passed away. They brought her body back into the living room but this time they made sure that nobody cried on her or that anyone unclean touched her…she was now ready for her final journey. I went and sat in the tiny kitchen as my feet had become numb from sitting on them.
The men then came and took her on the wooden pallet out the door and it was the saddest thing for me to see my husband and his nephews carry her out to the mosque. A lovely English friend of mine came to keep me company while the men prayed Asr prayer and then the funeral prayer and then went to the graveyard, and it meant a lot to me to have someone with whom I could communicate on an effortless basis at such an emotional time.