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Portland, Ore. – Judy Nikukar was in her 40s and had been a Muslim for 15 years before someone invited her to help wash a body before burial.
Nikukar considered whether she wanted to do it. She had seen only two dead bodies before — she was 6 when her great-grandmother died; 18 when her grandmother passed away. “I’d lived my life separated from death,” she said. “So many Americans do.”
On the other hand, Nikukar had a medical background and knew Islam’s requirement that communities prepare their brothers’ and sisters’ bodies for burial. Plus she knew the woman who had died. “I’d been there when she became a Muslim,” Nikukar said, “and when she was married.”
When the woman died of cancer, Nikukar wanted also to be present and to be a witness. She decided to try.
Nikukar remembers walking down the funeral home steps, toward a room where the washing would occur, wondering if she’d be able to complete the solemn ritual.
“I didn’t want to fail in this,” she said. “I knew the lady who had died, and I wanted to do this for her.”
Many religions attach sacred rituals to death and burial. Orthodox and traditional Jews, for example, do not allow embalming or cremation.
Bodies are washed carefully, wrapped in shrouds and buried in simple wooden coffins.
In the West, Islamic traditions are mysterious to outsiders and, sometimes, even to new Muslim converts.
“Death is the return of the soul to its Creator, God,” says Wajdi Said, a co-founder of the Muslim Educational Trust of Tigard (Ore.), which recently sponsored a workshop on Islamic funeral practices.
Muslims believe three things occur as they wash, shroud and bury the
dead: The body returns to the earth, from which it was made; the soul faces judgment; and the living are reminded that their time on Earth is limited, their opportunity to do good may end at any moment.
While Muslims share these beliefs with other people of faith, they do not relinquish their dead bodies to professional undertakers. Bodies are buried within 24 hours, but they must first be washed carefully and wrapped in clean white cloth.
In keeping with Muslim ideas of modesty and propriety, women wash women’s bodies and men wash those of men. Husbands may wash their wives’
bodies and vice versa. Either parent may wash a young child.
Most communities designate people who invite others to help wash a body, often at a funeral home. Gail Ramjan, a trustee and co-founder of the trust, stressed the dignity and compassion of the ritual — as well as the trepidation she felt the first time she participated.
“I was nervous and scared,” she said. “But it’s truly a loving act, the last worldly thing you can do for a person.”
She used a mannequin to show how a woman is always covered by a dark sheet. The body should be lifted carefully to protect the skin and to show respect, and gently washed with simple soap. A body should be rinsed three, five, seven or an odd number of times, until the water runs clear. The last rinse may include camphor or another scented ingredient. A woman’s hair is washed, combed and, if possible, braided and arranged under her head.
A body is dried carefully, arms crossed right over left as if in prayer, and wrapped in large, white winding sheets tied with strips of fabric. The resulting shroud recalls the white garments Muslims wear on Hajj, the sacred pilgrimage to the holy city of Mecca.
“Everyone ends up looking alike,” says Aesha Lorenz Al-Saeed, a native Oregonian who lives in Saudi Arabia but attends the Muslim Community Center when she’s in Portland. “The richest and the poorest persons are buried the same way.”
The washed, unembalmed body is buried in a shroud without a coffin.
Men, women and children are laid in their graves on their right sides, facing Mecca. Elaborate markers, domes or shrines are not allowed.
Ideally, Muslims are not buried alongside non-Muslims, and some cemeteries set aside space for Muslim graves. At the Islamic Cemetery of Oregon in Corvallis, graves are marked with numbers so visitors can find loved ones. Generally, Muslims do not leave flowers or other offerings.
Instead, they honor loved ones by paying their debts, offering charity in their names and with prayers.
Following Islamic funeral rules is also a way to honor brothers and sisters and teach the next generation to do the same, says Omar B. Shabazz, who first took part in the rituals in the 1970s, after seeing many of his fellow soldiers die in Vietnam.
“I’d experienced so much death,” he remembered. “But when someone passes away naturally, you have time to feel compassion. My first time was a spiritual awakening, a healing.”
Nikukar felt the same way after helping prepare her friend’s body for burial.
“It’s an honor to do for your sister,” she said, “the last thing on this Earth.”

By Nancy Haught
Religion News Service
Nancy Haught writes for The Oregonian in Portland, Ore.
Copyright 2009 Religion News Service. All rights reserved. No part of this transmission may be distributed or reproduced without written permission.

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