The other night I got a call from a nice woman in my Ummah who wanted to know if I would like to learn how to make congee ( a rice gruel) for iftar at the Masjid. During Ramadan our Masjid serves congee for both iftar and the leftovers for suhur. So this means for over a hundred people probably. She said that everyone she works with is over 50 and she was worried that none of the younger generation knows how to take on this massive duty. Unfortunately I wasn’t able to help this time because I wasn’t feeling well, but I hope to in the future.
That call started me thinking about volunteering, particularly in a community like mine. I think volunteering in general is positive, but for a religious community with a lifestyle so outside the norm, it is vital. In our community people are fed, births and deaths are attended and help is given, the Masjid is open for 5 times salat which requires male volunteers to lead and give the adhan, the wudu room and Masjid are regularly cleaned – the list goes on. Since a lot of this volunteering is tied up in Islamic tradition and knowledge, it has to be the members of the community who take care of it. I believe that if you live in a community, whether it is religious or otherwise, and you partake in the services provided by that community, you should probably at the very least know how to perform (some of) those services.
Something I’ve been contemplating for a long time is washing the dead. It’s one of the most important duties, in my opinion. Our community has its own graveyard and we take care of our own dead – from beginning to end. Washing the body is a long process and typically involves at least 4 to 6 people of the same gender as the deceased. In Islam the body has to be washed and wrapped in its shroud in a particular way. Also, everyone involved needs to keep in mind that we believe the body is aware of everything that is happening, so they do countless prayers while they are washing the body for comfort. Because of our beliefs and the fact that we do not use anything to preserve the body, when someone dies it becomes a race to the grave, literally. People are galvanized into action, arranging transport to and from the funeral home where the body washing takes place, then back to the Masjid for Janaazah prayers to be said, and finally to the burial. Once the body has been readied, prayed with/over, and taken to the burial site, we need still more volunteers. Men dig the grave and usually there is one man appointed to place the body correctly in the grave’s niche, but he also chooses a volunteer to help him. Then everything must be covered back up and food is usually provided for everyone. Finally, if the Imam isn’t available, someone must be found to read Ya Sin (a surah of the Qu’ran which is supposed to alleviate any suffering felt in the grave during its recitation) on the night of the burial and then again forty days later. It’s a total community effort – which is good, because it will come to all of us one day.
The thought has come into my head, more and more frequently, that I should learn how to do this. Right now, I wouldn’t be able to volunteer on a regular basis since I have small children and am unable to drop everything. In fact, I don’t even know if I want to be on the body washing list of volunteers. I think I’d prefer to be a back up. In one way I’m well suited to it because of my lack of squeamishness, but unfortunately I feel really shy touching/washing another person, even dead, because we know they are aware. When I think about it, an agony of embarrassment over washing someone as helpless as the dead steals over me. It seems really personal and I don’t do personal that well, but it’s a blessing, it’s a duty, and I think it’s necessary. I might not be a regular because I’m less comfortable than others, but at least if something happened I could help.
I guess what I’m saying is that if I expect to have people rush to wash and wrap my body and then place it in the earth, I think I should at least know how that process works. Not everyone can do every duty; some people aren’t right for a certain thing or aren’t able to. But I think more of an effort should be made by younger generations everywhere to learn these things just in case. If we leave it up to our parents and grandparents and are always too busy to learn it, then we are the losers. It’s sort of like how the knowledge of self-sufficiency has been effectively bred out of society by big businesses pushing consumerism. I think we expect that older generations will just naturally teach us what they think is useful. We know now that isn’t the case, either because they too are seduced by different methods, or they get tired of us being disinterested or mocking, or any number of reasons. We should know, we should volunteer, we should build and support our own future on so many different levels. When it’s the traditions, rituals, habits, and daily structure of our communities that are at stake, we should be there to help. How did we become so disengaged? Well, that’s probably another post and I think that what’s important is the now. Volunteering. Learning. Helping. Now.