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It seems like such a distant memory now, but there was a time when Imam Ahmed Ali Uzir of Brooklyn’s Iqra Masjid Community & Tradition would lead one or two Islamic funeral prayers, known as janazah prayers, a month. That was before Covid-19 ravaged the city; now, he might perform five in a row. On one particularly somber day a few weeks ago, he recited nine.
Ali remembers the moment it all began: A funeral home he works with called and asked for his help. “I went there thinking that it might be a few bodies — one day, two days. And it’s over a month now.”
He estimates that he’s overseen 150 burials in the past five weeks. Many were Covid-19 victims of varied backgrounds — Pakistani, Bangladeshi, African American. In one case, a woman didn’t go in for her necessary dialysis because of the crisis; fear of seeking care is a side effect of the pandemic that has become common around the world.
The earliest days of the crisis were the most daunting; funeral homes like Al-Rayaan Muslim Funeral Services in Brooklyn didn’t have proper guidelines from the government, and the health risks around handling bodies of Covid-19 victims were unclear. Many of Al-Rayaan’s employees left their jobs out of fear, and soon the imam, who is typically called upon only to recite the janazah prayer, was involved at every step: helping to retrieve bodies from homes and hospitals, performing the ghusl (washing) and draping the kafan (shrouding) in accordance with Islamic practice, transporting the bodies to the cemetery, and occasionally even climbing into empty graves to help ease in the caskets.
“As an imam, I am considering myself an essential worker,” Ali says. “I’m just a community servant. This is the time that I have to stand next to my community. You can talk about God, how important it is to trust in almighty Allah — now is the time to prove it.”
He recalls a father who was seeking help “because nobody was washing bodies,” Ali says. “He came and he said, ‘Can you please wash my son?’ And I looked at him and I said, ‘Okay, I will do it, don’t worry.’”
As a believer, he says, he has an obligation to help his community maintain the rites and rituals of Muslim burial. “We should not have fear of death, because that’s a reality. That’s what I believe, and that’s why I am out there.”
The virus, however, initially led many Muslim scholars to make adjustments to traditional funeral practices in light of the circumstances: Instead of the ghusl ritual to wash the bodies, they performed tayammum over sealed body bags, a practice that allows the use of sand where water is not available. But guidelines have changed in recent weeks, and now ghusl is being performed again, with proper precautions.
Safeguards are also now in place during the janazah prayers themselves: Only close friends and family are permitted, and the congregants, who usually line up shoulder to shoulder, now space out in accordance with social distancing measures.
Burying the victims of Covid-19 has required safety measures for Ali as well. And so, “Every day for the past five weeks, I wear the same clothes,” he says. “These clothes are a little thick, so I feel they are more protective.” He washes them each night and hangs them to dry in the living room, where he stays separately from his wife and three sons. “At the door I remove all clothes, put them in a bag, take them to the laundry, and go straight to shower.”
Part of the imam’s work now is to retrieve bodies in preparation for burial. “Yesterday they told me we have two removals — removals means that somebody passed away in [their] home and now we have to go and pick up the body from home,” he says. “We went to one hospital and picked up one body and one body from home in Long Island.” He brings them to Al-Rayaan, where families gather to mourn. Photographer Lori Hawkins captured several of these funerals overseen by the imam last month.
Muslim funerals are simple affairs: The deceased are meant to be covered in three pieces of white cotton cloth and buried directly in the ground, but since cemeteries often require bodies to be buried in caskets, the shrouded bodies are placed in plain wooden caskets instead. Inscribed on these caskets are the word “raas” in Arabic, which means “head,” designating which direction the body has been placed; Muslims are buried with their head facing toward the Kaaba, the structure at the heart of the Great Mosque in Mecca, Islam’s holiest site.
Many of the burials take place at the Marlboro Muslim Memorial Cemetery in New Jersey. Even though the imam enforces social distancing as much as possible, sometimes empathy takes precedence. He recalls a follower who lost both his son and his wife. “That was a moment I said, ‘Come on, brother, let me hug you.’ We are too much into hugging and handshaking; that’s our culture.”
At a recent funeral in New Jersey, family members took turns placing handfuls of dirt on top of the grave of Mohammed Ullah, observing an important rite in the Muslim burial tradition. “One day, when we’re going to die, someone else has to do it for us. That’s why it’s good if we help someone and put dirt on others’ graves,” explains Ali. “When someone’s going to do it for us, it’s kind of a karz, a debt. Washing the body is also karz, because someone is going to wash our body — so when our time comes, we are not under anyone’s debt.”
Ullah was 67 when he died in April from Covid-related breathing complications. He leaves behind his wife, two sons, four daughters, and 17 grandchildren. “He was very selfless, caring, and dedicated,” says his grandson Mohammad Shamim. “I can never forget his legacy and what he has done to ensure our well-being in the US and family members back in Bangladesh.”
For Ullah and all the others he has buried in recent weeks, Ali recites the janazah:
Oh Allah! Forgive those of us who are alive and those of us who are dead; those of us who are present and those of us who are absent; those of us who are young and those of us who are adults; our males and our females. Oh Allah! Whomsoever You keep alive, let him live as a follower of Islam and whomsoever You cause to die, let him die as a Believer.
Occasionally, Ali performs a burial for someone who has no friends or family to mourn them. With so many funerals performed back to back, he asks other families to join him in praying for the deceased. For one such man, named William Johnson, he says he told family members who were at the cemetery for the other funerals he would conduct that day, “‘Listen, there’s nobody with this person. As a responsibility, we all have to be his family.’ He actually got a bigger funeral prayer than other people. Everyone came and joined the burial process.”
Given the frequency of the burials and his close contact with families of people who have died from Covid-19, Ali suspects that he may have contracted the disease as well, but despite his symptoms, he isn’t certain. “I tried to go to different locations and they kicked me out. They said, ‘No, we cannot test you,’” he says. He turned to his faith.
“I saw that a lot of people prayed for me, and I saw the power of prayer for the first time. As an imam, we know prayers help, but that’s when I experienced it.”
Sarah Khan is a freelance writer who covers travel, food, and culture for the New York Times, the Wall Street Journal, Condé Nast Traveler, Saveur, and many other publications.
Lori Hawkins is an award-winning photographer based in New York City, where she is photographing the Covid-19 pandemic. She has covered refugee issues, health crises, and natural disasters.
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