When a loved one dies, most of us turn to a funeral home or crematorium to take care of the body. In the Islamic tradition, it’s different. Family members often help wash and bury their bodies within 24 hours. But first, you have to learn how to do it.
WFAE's Tasnim Shamma attended a body-washing class and filed this report.
Welcome to the Islamic Society of Greater Charlotte’s washing room.
The walls are white, there are metal tables ready for bodies and it smells kind of like moth balls. And if you’re a Muslim in Charlotte, your body is almost guaranteed to pass through this room.
It wasn’t always that way. Local Muslim bodies used to be taken to local funeral homes to be washed. But Zainab Ahmed says they weren’t always culturally sensitive.
"The thing I did not like was the man was handling the Muslim sister without any clothes," Ahmed says. "So that was very painful for me to see. And since then, I would tell the community members here, those on the board, it is a must. It is necessary. We have to have a washing place."
Three years ago, she got her wish. And today, Ahmed teaches Muslims how to wash bodies.
The first step is gathering the materials. You need soap, gloves, a comb, a bucket and yards of white cotton cloth.
The dummy for this demo is stuffed with cotton from an old blanket, but it's got a white Styrofoam head with a black wig, long eyelashes, big hips and narrow waist that her teenage son helped make.
It's placed on the table and covered by a sheet, with the private parts of the body covered by an additional cloth. There are usually two or three other helpers of the same gender, unless it's a spouse. Everyone wears gloves and they pour water into jugs to avoid wasting water.
"We start actually we have the water running and we have the hose that we can wash whatever impurities the body is with, coming from the hospital or whatnot," she says. "You just want to make sure you know, to clean those impurities."
While someone lifts the upper body, one woman presses down on the abdomen to excrete fluids still in the body.
"The second thing is always to start from the right side. We wash her head with soap and water and then the upper right and then the upper left and then the bottom right," Ahmed says.
This is repeated about three times. Finally, the hair is washed and combed and braided into three braids. Prophet Muhammad taught that a woman's hair should be made into three braids for simplicity in burial.
And during the last wash, camphor is added in the water. It's a white, waxy substance in the shape of small cubes that keeps the body soft.
"At the time of burial, the angels are present," Ahmed says. "And it gives a very good smell. Second, it keeps the insects away from the body."
After this final wash, the dummy is dried with a clean towel and dressed with a makeshift skirt, head covering and a sleeveless shirt. Its hands are laid across the chest as they would be during prayer.
Finally, the largest piece of cloth is wrapped tightly around the body. The whole process of washing and wrapping the body takes about an hour.
Like most Jews, Muslims try to avoid embalming their dead, so that the body naturally decomposes into the Earth. So it's important to perform this last ritual wash as soon as possible – usually within 24 hours.
The wash is done for a few reasons. Practically, it's important to get rid of extra fluids that might still be in the body and religiously, it's like the body is getting ready for a final prayer.
Washing the bodies of the dead is considered a collective duty for Muslims. Still, it’s not something that most Muslims readily volunteer to do. Ahmed became an exception 25 years ago when she agreed to help a friend wash a body. Her family didn’t understand.
"My mom said, 'How was it? Everything was OK? Are you fearful?' I said, 'Yes I am fearful.'" she says. "And then she told me, 'Didn't I tell you not to go?' But I gave her the answer: 'You know what mom? If I have to, I will go again.'"
Ahmed says it took her a week to recover from that first experience. Now, she holds classes a few times a year.
"It is a collective obligation on every Muslim. So somebody in the community has to know," she says. "So when you do this, you do this for the sake of God to prepare the body. And this is the closure, this is so close to God. This is how you're going to presented."