My father died Sunday, March 9, 2008. All five of we remaining family members had a say in funeral arrangements, but because my father had been a prominent man in business, we had to consider the many visitors that would come from all over the area, even from different states.
We chose an elegant funeral home and an expensive casket, amidst comments of, “He deserves the best,” even as we knew that our choices made no difference in the world. We had lost him forever.
I did not want to enbalm. I think the procedure is brutal, bordering on mutilation. My family is Christian, though, so the decision to enbalm prevailed. I dreaded seeing his corpse all dressed up, face painted to look as though he were sleeping. We were standing, surrounding his bed when he took his last breath, and he did not look as though he were sleeping.
In the casket, in fact, he did look as though he were sleeping, with sculpted stillness. I touched his inert, icey hands, the same hands I used to hold when they were warm and soft, as he suffered the pain of metastatic bone cancer. I kissed his cheek, as I used to kiss him good-bye when one of us went out. I touched his shell, the shell in which he lived, breathed, thought, laughed, worked, prayed, loved, grew old, wise, sick, and then died.
When I first learned about the Islamic customs for burial, I thought they were sensible and respectful. Washing the body, wrapping, and burying in a simple, biodegradable container seemed so much more satisfying than enbalming or spending thousands of dollars on a magnificent casket.
In Riyadh, I used to feel honored to take part in the janaza prayers following the fard prayers, in the mosque, of deceased people I did not know. The Muslim customs remind us that we are all equal in death, and that we take nothing from this world to our appointment with Allah. Performing the short janaza prayers after the fard puts death into the context of life.
However, as the ceremonial activities for my father continued over two days, with several hundred visitors, three eulogies, a funeral procession that needed a police escort at every intersection, and a military bugler playing Taps over the flag draped coffin, I started to feel the spirit of the phrase “celebration of life” that now describes funeral rituals in America.
Through my tears, I smiled, giving thanks to Allah for this wonderful man who was my father, mentor of men and women, teacher and leader, well-respected by all who knew him. I thanked Allah for all the years we had my father. I thanked Allah for everything.
I still believe in the Muslim burial customs, and plan to have them for myself. For my father, however, we did the right thing.