Why We Need Funerals


You would think I’d count my first experience with death as August 4th, 2005, when my cousin Samir was stabbed to death by a gang on the streets of Liverpool. Or perhaps later, in 2007, when my dog Princess failed to live up to her nickname ‘Houdini’ and was fatally hit by a car. I don’t, though, not really. Why? The reason is simple: because I didn’t see them go. They were there one day, in the lexicon of my mind, and then they weren’t. Until my 22nd year of life, just over a year ago, I’d managed to avoid attending a funeral. Death was, until then, an altogether apt spectre in my life, trailing ghost fingers down my spine.

Naturally, when we finally did meet in the flesh, it was hideously over the top, as though there’d been a backlog and it all had to come in one weekend.

August 5th, 2005.

I’m shaken from sleep at 5am, and my cousin’s red face swims into view. “Wake up,” he said. “Samir’s dead.” I’m 16 years old, it’s dark, and the words have no meaning. I’d slept at my Aunty’s house that night, as I often did, because she raised me and it’s the only place that’s ever felt like home. Samir, I should say, wasn’t my blood-relative. He was my cousin’s cousin, on his father’s side, but I knew him. Had played with him often, he and his brothers, and as with all outer family relations or close friends, he fell under the umbrella of cousin.

There was talk of a funeral, but I had school to go to, and there was no real suggestion that I should attend. Or maybe there was and I’ve since glossed it over—maybe I was too afraid to face it then. I went to school in a daze that day, and used these words to great effect: my cousin was stabbed to death. As if I had any fucking clue what death was. I didn’t, but the comical shock it elicited was somehow gratifying; it told me this was real, and big, and important even if I couldn’t feel it within the void. I didn’t know how to react or how to feel, and mostly took to curling up on my bed overcome by the sensation of powerlessness, of stasis. There was nothing physical to hold onto, however, and it kept slipping away from, this appropriate feeling of grief, and it faded.

What makes my remarkable escape from the tangible reality of death all the more remarkable is that I was a macabre teenager. All my life, I’ve been afraid of death – not just my own – but especially of moments like these, losing family. I would lie awake at night and envisage funerals (the Western kind, with open caskets, a priest, and lots of suits). My fear was multi-faceted but the central question I asked myself is this: would I cry? It’s a question I have gnawed into ragged knots ever since the day my cousin was hit by a car when she was three, and I was five.

She was hit, but survived. Everyone cried that day and everyone remarked that I didn’t. I didn’t know what was happening, didn’t really understand what all the flashing lights meant, or why my aunty was out in the street in broad daylight wearing her bubblegum pink PJs, screaming all the while. From then on, I’ve felt uneasy in my own body, questioning its traitorous responses. I’d lie in bed, and picture grandma, eyes closed, face still and grey and tears would well – sometimes, I even let them fall.

I needed to prove to myself that I cared, that I could feel just as much as anyone. I’ve always been the reticent sheep in the family – not black but not white either – more inclined to books and small spaces than the explosion of movement and colour and life that encapsulated my family. I ought to have been more afraid that I’d use up the allotted tears for each death, that there wouldn’t be enough to fill the gap.

In 2007, my beloved dog Princess passed away. I don’t remember the date, though I’ve been frantically searching through old social media platforms for the blogs I know I left behind but I cannot find them. I cannot remember the date. In truth, I had to look up the news report to be exact about Samir’s death as well. It’s almost as though a film of forgetfulness has descended around these moments, these dark spots I do not want to know about, do not want to experience bodily.

I sent my brother a text as I wrote this piece, I asked if he knew the day our dog died. He replied, ‘I don’t remember the day tayta died are you serious lol’. Tayta is Arabic for grandma. As it happens, I do remember the day—both days—if not the specific date. I was at UTS by this point, and I got a call from my brother, ironically enough. ‘Princess is dead,’ he said. His voice had a bluntness, an ugliness that seemed to ooze out of the phone. It was a ludicrous sentence, a ridiculous proposition, a crass joke, but he repeated it.

And when I went home, she wasn’t there anymore. No funerals for a dog, of course, Mum scoffed. I wondered then if they threw her in the bin, the way they did her stillborn pups a few years back. I remember the bright blue plastic bags they put them in, before dropping it in the garbage, but not much else. I’m surprised I’ve retained even that bag, truth be told. I never saw my dog again, was never able to mourn her properly, though I think about her often.

Death, at this point, was nothing but an absence it seemed, the kind that would not go unremarked upon between friends but equally wouldn’t be of great concern. Sometimes, it happens, and people fade from your life, only for you to find them again in a little cafe down a side street in the city. “It’s been a while,” you’d say, and they’d agree, and you would catch up, a conversation which would span a minute, maybe more, before ending with a vague promise “to do it properly sometime soon.” That’s how it felt for Samir, and for Princess—open ended. As though any day now, I could turn a corner and they would be there.

Last year, everything changed.

I went to two funerals, one on the heels of the other. Two deaths separated by a day, two slabs on metal gurneys – one small, one medium-sized. It was the end of Ramadan, a time of celebration, now forever shaded. One of the deaths was expected, at least. My grandmother had been quietly dying for several months, her leg black and putrefying from a blood clot. It was on fire from within, the flesh sloughing off – my first real sight of death and it was appropriately grim. It was kept wrapped under clean white bandages, however, safely out of sight. That way, we could all ignore it was happening, unlike the wooden-quality of her yellowing skin, or the vacancy in her eyes, or her shrinking mass. She was smaller every time I saw her, as though God was inside her chest hacking away to whittle her down because death’s door is only so wide and only so high and she had to slim down to fit through.

The doctors said “any minute now” but it was months before she went – months where she didn’t recognize anyone, lost the ability to use words, couldn’t walk or do anything it seemed, other than smile and occasionally laugh at the antics only she could see. In those months, we cared for a stranger, and we grieved for her and I had more time than I could ever have wanted to become intimately acquainted with mortality. I treasured every fragile moment with her, even as part of me longed for it to be over – the strain it was putting on my aunty was awful to behold.

But grandma, as always, knew best, and she waited. Waited for Thursday, August 16th, 2012, when my cousin’s wife gave premature birth to a son, Jamal, who lived for only an hour. I got 
a text from my cousin asking if I was going to be at the funeral Friday morning. I felt my heart seize and the sorrow that had been building through months of living death finally crested within: whose funeral? I sent back. To this day, I don’t know why I asked, as if it could be anyone other than grandma but he replied: my son’s. I never thought my first funeral would be that of a baby—I’d been preparing myself for just the opposite.

I took the day off work, dressed as formally as I could (I don’t own a suit) and made my way down to Lakemba Mosque. I saw some of my cousins, along with an uncle, loitering around an alley nearby. I said my hellos, and we stood around in grim circles peppered with the occasional grunt. The grieving father, my cousin, my actual blood cousin who was more brother than anything else, came into view and I went over to him. Up till that moment, I was operating on a familiar, blank cruise control, in some distant backseat not fully conscious of what was occurring. When I saw him, saw that grief had redesigned his face, had done things with it I never thought possible, a part of me broke.

We embraced, and he said, “Do you wanna see him? Come.” I didn’t want to, not at all, but that other operator still had control of my limbs and I followed him as if in slow motion. His eyes were red, and he was crying as he pushed past two thick plastic door-flaps and into a cold room with metal drawers. On a gurney in the middle of the room was a tiny bundle wrapped in white. Around it, a circle of bearded men, staring down at finality. At a baby. My cousin went up to his son and he cried and he kissed him, again and again. It was difficult to remember that he was only 23, and that his son only lived for an hour.

“Enough,” my uncle said, and took him away. “Haram.”

Haram, meaning wrong, meaning not-okay, not okay to show grief for your dead son when he’s gone to a better place. Not okay to begrudge him his place in Heaven—to weep so openly, to grieve so freely, made the recently departed linger, made them feel bad. That’s what they thought, anyway. It made a twisted kind of sense, I suppose, but I didn’t like it. Didn’t like this cold room, or the tiny child, so still on its metal bed, its fingers smaller than any I’d seen. The baby was placed in a little coffin, and carried into the mosque. Most of the men here were dressed in tracksuits, in baggy clothes, I saw. It was an impromptu funeral, after all—all Muslim funerals are, they have to be, with their 24 hour deadlines. I was the most formally dressed—what did I know of any funerals, let alone Muslim ones? I only had TV to go on, and popular culture had not prepared me for this, or the row of Nikes outside the mosque door.

We prayed inside (or I tried to, scrabbling for prayers and words I’d long since forgotten), and then drove to the nearby cemetery. My cousin was still crying, and I was glad of that. Didn’t want him to hide it away, didn’t want to see a blank face. He wept and we buried his son a few feet above his grandfather’s grave. The hole was already prepared, so shallow it took only moments to fill. I thought to myself then, I need to see grandma one more time, she can’t have long to go. I’ll see her in the morning, I decided, but the next day could not bring myself to go. I felt sick and heavy inside and at around midday, received the call. She’d died that very morning, at 11am.

One of the things I never factored into my morbid fantasies was the practicality of public transport as a vehicle for grief.

You see, I don’t have a license and don’t drive – I ended up crying on the train ride from the Inner West to my aunty’s house in the actual West, and on the bus too. I earned myself many a sidelong glance but I didn’t care. Perhaps, somewhere in the back of my mind, I wanted to make a spectacle of it. Wanted to show the world how much I hurt, to make it memorable. I wouldn’t let this simply fade into the back of my mind, wouldn’t let this be another ghostly brush with forgetfulness as it had with those first few absences in my life. My aunty’s house and outer street were packed with cars: the grieving had fallen upon it like a black cloud of hungry vultures. I walked in the front door, and navigated my way through a sea of old crying women, squat and earthy beneath their black hijabs. Someone pointed to a room and said, “she’s in there.”

She was on the floor, dead.

Just like that.

Wrapped in a white cloud, but on the floor nonetheless, as though she were asleep or had just fallen for a moment. Here I was face to face with death and death, I found, had a face that I loved. Love still. Death always will. I was not afraid, then, or timid, or disgusted. I kissed her clammy forehead, and knelt by her with my aunty, and cried. The coroner came a few hours later, and they put her on a stretcher, and covered her with a bright blue tarp. Then she was gone. I’d cried so much by this point that my face ached, and I wanted nothing more than to curl up somewhere, but my time with death was not yet done.

Phone calls were made and agitation began to shiver through the still heaviness of grief. Where were they taking her body? How long would they hold it? It had to be buried within 24 hours. It turns out she was heading for the morgue in Glebe, and they would hold her over the weekend. Now everyone was up in arms—they couldn’t do that! This is a matter of heaven and hell, a matter of holiness, and souls suspended.

So I ended up in a car with one of my cousins, chasing the coroner’s van which had my grandmother’s body. As he drove, my cousin was on the phone with the police, asking them to tell him please where the van was, and what did we have to do to get the body back? It was at Liverpool Hospital for the moment, and so we ended up there, skidding on rain-slicked streets in the slowly falling night. My cousin jumped out and went to the police station; there was a form he needed to sign. But by the time he got back, the van was on its way once more to Glebe, and he was on the phone shouting at a doctor, at someone at Lakemba Mosque.

I was in the passenger seat, reading one of my favorite fantasy books, the Dragon Reborn by Robert Jordan. I return to this series in times of great distress, and I figured if chasing through the streets of Sydney after my recently departed grandmother doesn’t count as distressing (to say nothing of morbidly surreal), nothing would. A Muslim doctor agreed to meet us at Lakemba Mosque and provide a death certificate, and the coroner’s office agreed to provide the body, so we converged there.

It was dark and cold in the now familiar little alley behind the mosque, and the scene had the feel of a shady drug deal. Eventually, the van pulled up, and grandma was wheeled out in her bright blue body-bag and deposited with a thud on the gurney. I stood shivering in the dark as the final details were arranged. I couldn’t even begin to tell you what I felt at that moment—that the loss I dreaded and feared most of all should end up so prolonged, should give me so much time to adjust, was both a blessing and a curse.

By the following morning, she was ready for her funeral, lovingly cleaned and attended to by her daughters, friends, sisters; all the women in her life. It was a bright day, and men and women thronged around the mosque. Many people had turned out for this farewell, and it was a beautiful sight to see just how many had been touched by this great woman’s lifespan. On top of which, it was Eid, the holy celebration marking the end of Ramadan.

Which was another problem in itself—nobody was working at the cemetery, the Muslim gravediggers being otherwise busy with their own families. “Just give us the tools brother, we’ll fucking dig the hole ourselves,” I heard my cousin say. That wasn’t necessary, it turned out, after money changed hands. At the cemetery, we formed a corridor for the body to pass through, and my grandfather led the way, silver hair glinting in the sun. He was the first to throw earth over her body, and we all followed. It wasn’t the quiet, ritual funeral in hallowed halls that I’d expected all my life. Nor was it the hurried, haunting little funeral of my baby cousin, with too few people attending. It was out in the open, on a beautiful day, with hundreds of people getting their hands dirty to pile rocks into a grave.

It took months for the rough pile of boulders to become a smooth stretch of lawn with a marble headstone, and it took over a year for me to be able to write any of this down. I’m not sure what any funeral should be like, in all honesty, but I know they are necessary. I can still feel the sweat running down my back and sides as I stood beside the empty grave; I can still feel the dirt rubbing between my fingers; I can still feel the grief like molten lead in my gut. The absurdity, the formality, and the often uncanny casualness of it all, needs to be remarked upon, to be experienced. In that way, you can take a little of their death into you, and they can live on, unforgotten.

image – Shutterstock