A death and life experience

When I first learned how to bathe and shroud a dead body, I was in high school. I remember the life-size doll my teacher used to demonstrate to the class the proper way to wrap a dead body in seven pieces of unstitched cloth. Back then, the greatest relevance of the demonstration was because it would form part of an end-of-year exam. Death felt too distant for us to actually summon this knowledge in any real-life situation.

But less than two years later, I stood against the protruding edge of a steel table-bath that had been rapidly brought into my uncle's kitchen in Pretoria. My grandmother had passed away hours earlier.

I remember relatives around me, encouraging me to participate, to help to bathe my grandmother. The experience felt surreal, as though it was happening apart from me. The shock of those last few hours numbed me to what lay before me, the body of someone I love being prepared to be lowered into the ground, never to be seen again.

Those lessons at school suddenly held real-life value, but when it was my own grandmother – and not a doll – in front of me, the theory of the rites felt hollow. Still, it was the theory, the lessons drummed into us at schools and madrasas, that impressed on us the absolute importance of the ghusl (the bathing of the deceased).

It's described as a fardh-e-kifaayah, an obligatory action that, if one person in the community performs it, the obligation on the rest of the community is relieved. But if no one performs it, then the offence is committed by everyone in the community.

Yet in those moments when grief is fresh, it's not thoughts of a communal obligation that dictate what you do. And when we are not aggrieved, busy as we've prided ourselves into being, few of us actually consider the administration of death. We take it for granted that there is someone with enough time and the requisite knowledge to do it for us, or for those we love.

But at some point in the past six years in central Johannesburg, there was a real fear that there would not be any women who would be able to bathe and shroud the dead.

And so my sister and I volunteered at a community organisation in Fordsburg. The two women who regularly oversaw the bathing and shrouding of dead Muslim women in this part of Johannesburg were growing old. The head of one community organisation was ­particularly concerned that, when these two tannies (aunties) passed on, there would be no other women with the requisite experience to clean the dead.

That he's now dead whereas these two women are still alive is a cruel trick of fate.

My sister and I were earmarked to take over from Ayesha Baai and Choti Baai, as the two elderly women are affectionately known. But first we'd have to work with them, learn from them, help them as far as we could. I wouldn't say my sister and I were enthusiastic to become substitute toekamannies, as the women who bathe and shroud the dead are known in the Malay community, but I accepted the importance of the work they do – unpaid, ­anonymous work, fulfilling a religious obligation in the background of everyday life.

Service and community
With the air thick with the smell of camphor and incense, I learned something about being part of a community, I learned something about serving other people without any expectation of reward, with often just the briefest acknowledgement of thanks.

And yet it was not exactly morbid work either.

In the time we had before a body arrived we would laugh, the two old women would tease each other about their age, switching between English and Gujarati with ease. They would complain about the quality of the towels and assure us that, by refusing to use the shower affixed to the bath table and instead using jugs of water, we ensured the dead women we bathed were better respected.

"The men just use the shower, I hear," Ayesha Baai would say while shaking her head. "But how do they know if the water is right, if the pressure is too hard?

"They do everything slapdash," she would confide in a conspiratorial tone, assuring us, and herself perhaps, that we were more careful, more respectful, more empathetic towards the deceased.

Dignity for the deceased
Our laughter and chatter stopped as soon as a bereaved family entered the room. Then a body would be carried into the room by men and laid on to the table bath. When the men disappeared into an anteroom, the door shut, and we began.

I am generally squeamish. But somehow in that room my natural inclination to squirm away was quelled. Our emphasis on securing the dignity of the deceased – no matter what – helped to shield me from possibly gory sights, but it also taught me a lesson in respect of the personal, of the individual, even in death.

With time, my sister and I fitted into our roles. We knew what to do. Tear off large pieces of cotton wool. Crush camphor with a mallet. Find large towels to cover the body. Fill buckets with lukewarm water. Make sure it's lukewarm, without putting your own hand into the bucket and contaminating it.

On the opposite side of the room, two of us would unroll the kafn – the seven pieces of unstitched white cloth that the deceased woman would be wrapped in after being bathed.

There was a particular method, a cathartic routine that gave me something to do when I was not sure what to say to the bereaved family. Often, I would stand beside the buckets of water, dipping jugs into it and distributing them to the aunties and the family members, urging them to take the lead from the two old women: do as they do and say, but mostly, don't be afraid.

Last rites
Then there were the times when the aunties were out of town, or unavailable. Suddenly my sister and I were leading a room full of teary-eyed women in the last rites of their beloved. On at least one of these occasions we went back to the books we used at school, to make sure we knew how to layer the kafn. The responsibility was immense.

It's been some years now since I've helped to bathe a deceased woman. It certainly was not a conscious ­decision to stop volunteering. I was unavailable a few times they called.

Then the calls stopped coming altogether. And although the aunties are now both too frail to do the ghusl and kafn, I've heard that another pair of women are now the designated toekamannies in central Johannesburg. All those fears of no one being around were disproved after all.

I suppose for as long as the will for people to be buried as Muslims is strong, there will always be someone to call on, someone with the experience or the textbook knowledge of what to do in those final hours.

The experience of those few months has stayed with me. The repeated experience of facing death as though it was routine forced a unique contemplation, not least of an awareness of death.

Closeness of God
As a child I learned that God is closer to me than my jugular vein. He is near, not remote. He exists within my being, not in the skies looming above me.

And although closeness here is meant to convey physical proximity, I've come to realise that it also evokes the necessity of God for life and death. It has also reminded me that a relationship with God is often precarious; it is prone to the protruding edge of an exposed switchblade.

And yet, as I've grown older, I've felt the unshakeable faith in this nearness of God waver. It's not that I've stopped believing. But the longer I've lived, the busier I've become; the grime of this world has sometimes made me forget God's nearness.

Although I've always known that an attempt to reaffirm that closeness does not hinge on simply kneeling down longer before him, the experience of discharging a communal responsibility offered me a chance to reflect on self and other, individual and community.

And how we come together – in life and in death – in his name.

Khadija Patel is a writing fellow at the University of Witwatersrand's Institute for Social and Economic Research.

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Khadija Patel
Khadija Patel pushes words on street corners. She is the editor-in-chief of the Mail & Guardian, a co-founder of the The Daily Vox and vice chairperson of the Vienna-based International Press Institute (IPI). As a journalist she has produced work for Sky News, Al Jazeera, The Guardian, Quartz, City Press and the Daily Maverick, among others. She is also a research associate at WISER (Wits Institute for Social and Economic Research at the University of Witwatersrand) and has previously worked in community media. In 2017, she was among 11 people from across Africa and the diaspora who were awarded the inaugural Africa #NoFilter fellowship from the Ford Foundation and in 2018, she was awarded honorary membership of the Golden Key Society. She is passionate about the protection and enhancement of global media as a public good.

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