What the dead teach us about life: A view from Islam’s last rites

‘I wanted to confront death,’ a mother says after a profound loss. ‘Now it shows up with regularity.’

The gravestone of Meryem Sayılgan. (Photo courtesy of Zeyneb Sayılgan)

(RNS) — I wash dead bodies in my free time. With 70 other Muslim women, I volunteer to perform the last Islamic rites, a collective obligation. Someone must fulfill this duty, otherwise, we will all be held to account by God.

Mosques offer instruction on how to conduct these practices. “Why are you here?” the instructor asked us.

“With all the war going on and seeing so many dead people, death is more on my radar. I want to be prepared,” a girl responded.

I signed up after my 3-year-old daughter, Meryem, was tragically killed in a collision with a truck two years ago. I wanted to confront death. Looking at my destroyed minivan, I refused to accept that devastation and chaos were the end of my story. I wanted to chart out meaning and beauty in the midst of the ugly. I not only wanted to survive this tragedy, but grow and thrive.

I began to process my pain on my podcast, launching a series on facing mortality. An academic, I organized a faculty seminar and taught an open class.

Now, death shows up with regularity. Almost every week the funeral home sends out a message asking for help. It reminds me of Turkey, where my parents grew up, where news of recent deaths is announced at the mosque. Everyone can attend the service. Strolling through Istanbul, I pass cemeteries and greet the people of the grave, as encouraged by Prophet Muhammad.

In a world that offers few spaces to engage this inevitable reality, these efforts have been transformative. God is the one, declares the Quran, “Who created death and life in order to test which of you is best in deeds. And He is the Almighty, All-Forgiving.”

Hence, mortality by design brings out the best in us. By default, it cannot be random or meaningless. Quite the opposite. It has life-giving lessons to convey. 

Death is fully integrated into the fabric of traditional Muslim societies. The local municipality covers the costs and provides burial space. Mosques offer instruction in funeral rites. It is a collective responsibility.

Death treats everyone the same. “Every soul will taste death,” says the Quran. Nonetheless, every person dies in their own way. Some deaths feel more painful than others. I think of the woman buried next to my daughter. A French teacher, also Meryem, she was brutally murdered; her dismembered body could not be fully recovered. Is it strange that I feel gratitude knowing that my child was not killed by malicious intent and that her body was completely intact?

Cemeteries have also become battlegrounds for Islamophobes. My son, who died earlier, rests here too. I wonder if it would make a difference to them knowing that half of the cemetery honors the bodies of children.

Before I leave for the funeral home, I take my ritual ablution. A symbol of spiritual purification, it prepares you to be in the right state of mind. I was a bit nervous before my first visit. What will the dead body look like?

Muslim funeral services take place quickly after death. To delay the burial is reprehensible. The souls long to be reunited with the creator. Six volunteers are needed. Within five minutes of the announcement of a woman’s death, many women stepped up. No hesitation, no excuses. We will be there and honor her, a stranger, our sister in Islam. I am in awe of these women who selflessly respond to the call.

I am grateful that Islam has not outsourced this obligation, but empowers its followers by granting high spiritual rewards. Those who perform them hope to attain God’s love. The tradition espouses solar as well as “lunar spirituality” — the light and the dark. Both are needed for growth and maturity. Nearness to God is attained by being in these uncomfortable spaces.

Grief feels less lonely with those who understand the language of loss. I am comforted to be in a place that embraces the human being as a whole: joy and sorrow, pain and pleasure, the dark and the light. Like the seasons in creation, all changes are necessary for life to thrive. I welcome them all.

My involvement is also an act of gratitude toward my community, which has supported my family and me. Social connection is essential to sustain ourselves, especially in times of anguish. When we huddle together, the pain softens.

Seeing the dead body wrapped in a big black plastic bag lying on the table makes me feel terror. Thinking that my precious Meryem was put in a freezing, dark morgue — alone, with no one on her side — makes me scream inside. No warm bunny blankie around her that kept her innocent body cozy. Tears are pouring. Death is absolute horror. Cruel and disgraceful.

“Would you like to tell me about your sister?” I asked the family who joined us. People are grateful to share about the lives that enriched their own. She was a 57-year-old woman who died of complications after surgery. How young, I thought. Death does not care about age or aspirations. It did not care that I had invested my best self into my daughter. Death cannot be negotiated nor escaped. Death is decreed by God alone, regardless of the circumstances. “When their specified time arrives, they cannot delay it for a single hour nor can they bring it forward,” the Quran says.

I feel comfort as well as distress acknowledging this fact. To know that a higher power with the best sense of judgment is in ultimate charge of my end gives me peace. 

The woman’s sisters do not speak much, nor shed tears. The atmosphere is quiet and somber. I wonder about their relationships. Did they depart on good terms? I hope I reconcile early enough with those I have hurt. I promise myself to say “I am sorry,” “Forgive me,” “I love you” and “Thank you” more often.

The body is a sacred trust. Muslims believe the spirit of the deceased is still alive, observing us closely. We make sure the water is at the ideal temperature to keep her comfortable. Modesty applies even to the dead body, and we keep her covered and lower our gaze as we wash her gently. We comb, braid her hair and apply fragrance. Finally, we shrouded her with five pieces of white sheet and put her white headscarf on.

Every time we finish, I am amazed by the expression of relief on their faces. They look so beautiful, as if they are saying, “Thank you for preparing me for my meeting with my Lord.”

Can a religion that preserves the dignity of the deceased be a threat to society? In this room, we transcend racial, ethnic, national, social and political boundaries. Death is a shared human experience. “Indeed, we belong to God, and indeed to Him is our return,” with no exceptions, as the Quran stresses. Migration is part of our spiritual DNA, as much as we want to deny it. No one can make an absolute claim on resources, territories, wealth and loved ones. “Be in this world like a stranger or a traveler,” goes a prophetic paradigm.

Another prophetic maxim says, “Remember death often — the destroyer of pleasures.” And destroy it does. But the Quran proclaims, “Everything will perish except His Face. All authority belongs to Him. And to Him you will be returned.” Hope emerges. Everything that is done in his name will last. So long as my thinking, feeling and doing is for God, nothing is truly ever lost, wasted or forgotten. What is for eternity will become eternal.

Death is not glorified in Islam, nor is it avoided. The approach is one of realism. Fear of death is intrinsic to human nature and life-preserving. Too little of it leads to heedlessness, too much of it is debilitating. “Though the physicality of death destroys us, the idea of death may save us,” notes the psychiatrist Irvin D. Yalom.

In accepting the agonizing truth of my mortality, I become more conscious of my limited time on this earth. I use my resources and God-given talents more wisely. Or, in the words of Imam Ali, “Lead such a life, that, when you die, the people may mourn you, and while you are alive they long for your company.”

At the gravesite of my daughter, I understand what supreme goodness looks like. It is to live a life with all your loved ones. No separation, no heartache. Immortality is the ultimate yearning. I arrive at a simple, existential human knowing that this is not the end of the human story. I look around me.

Spring has arrived again, and as promised in the Quran, “Look, then, at the imprints of God’s mercy, how He restores the earth to life after death: this same God is the one who will return people to life after death- He has power over all things.”

Zeyneb Sayilgan. (Photo by Chris Hartlove)

Zeyneb Sayılgan. (Photo by Chris Hartlove)

Growth is happening, even in the dark, cold, long winter night. Slow, steady, persistent. I feel resurrected. I return to the world with life-giving lessons, gratefully received from the dead.

(Zeyneb Sayılgan, a Muslim scholar at the Institute for Islamic, Christian and Jewish Studies in Baltimore, is the host of “On Being Muslim: Wisdom From the Risale-i Nur.” The views expressed in this commentary do not necessarily reflect those of Religion News Service.)

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