The Muslim who wants to be cremated
Iraqi-born Auckland architect Ali Shakir on writing an un-Islamic will in the time of Covid
Whenever I hear the news of a friend’s parent or grandparent passing in countries such as the US, Canada, Australia or New Zealand, and their families spending fortunes to have their dead bodies flown to Iraq via DHL to be buried there, I’m utterly baffled.
What’s the point? If they believe in an afterlife, then the places where corpses are laid should be irrelevant. Souls can roam the universe, free of charge, no?
Before her Alzheimer’s death in Jordan, my aunt’s confused mind became obsessed with her house in Baghdad. She would cry out: Bayti! Bayti! Bayti! "My house!" I didn’t want to end up like her. My generation had been spoon-fed at school about sacrificing our lives for our land, but a realisation hit me that no land is holier than life and thus worthy of dying for. Not Baghdad, not Mecca, not Jerusalem. Not anywhere. I started contemplating what I’d hitherto considered unimaginable: cremation.
The thought of it still scared me, and triggered disturbing questions like: What if I continued to feel pain? Why create a posthumous suffering for myself? And counter-questions like: Would I be better off slowly devoured by worms? The main obstacle remained that I was a Muslim, and cremation is strictly forbidden in Islam. Would I want to deserve God’s eternal wrath?
I’ve always had reservations and many questions, but couldn’t yet imagine my life without having religion in it. I needed faith to comfort me at times of distress, and help me make some sense of the senseless, especially in a country like Iraq, where innocent people died in consecutive wars and other types of conflict. Where do they go? What happens to their aspirations, dreams and love stories? I don’t think I could have made it through the disconcerting transition into settling in New Zealand without having the fluffy cushion of religion to rest my back on at the end of each challenging day. But then, my father died while I was overseas, and the cushion stopped being so comfortable.
Everything had to be done quickly. Neither I nor my brother could attend the burial. Our family friends took care of the complicated procedure. I felt I’d let my family down, and couldn’t forgive myself.
Shortly after returning to Auckland, I had a breakdown and was hospitalised. I went back home to launch an anonymous account on Twitter, declaring my new spiritual status. I became an agnostic.
It still took me five years to finally bring myself to write a will. Although I was no longer abiding by the Islamic rules and teachings, my family, the prospective executors and beneficiaries of my will, are Muslims. I had to let them know about my decision, because having my body burned after death was not my sole deviant wish.
No consistent Muslim will ever agree to take part in a cremation process, so I thought to spare my family the trouble and embarrassment, and instructed instead that they stay away from my body and make no announcement regarding my passing to the community. I also asked that they contact a funeral service to do the entire job without holding religious ceremonies or prayers, and then have my ashes scattered at any body of water.
Whether people want to be buried or cremated, it’s a very personal decision. A childhood friend purchased a reasonably large burial plot for his family at the new cemetery on the outskirts of Baghdad. The notable graveyards inside the capital— mainly located next to famous Islamic shrines—had reached their maximum capacities a long time ago. My friend had hired a gardener to plant flowers and a few trees, but having miraculously survived abduction, he left Iraq in 2005. He now lives with his family in Toronto, Canada.
It was raining heavily on the May morning last year when I reluctantly walked into a law firm’s office in Auckland, and took a seat, waiting for the lawyer to witness my will. I heard him talking to a client in French, which I’d studied many years ago at the Centre Culturel Francais in Baghdad, but could hardly communicate in anymore. I wondered what might have happened to our Profs there…Damn it! I hate that my thoughts always end up taking me back to my days in Iraq.
He finished his call. I went in to see him. I proceeded to sign the document. My hand slightly trembled, I held the pen tight between my fingers. A few minutes later, I was walking down the street, carrying a white envelope that contained my will.
There are no right or wrong choices, and had it not been for the outbreak of Covid-19, I probably wouldn’t have considered writing about my experience. But each time I heard about the ordeal of bereaved families from around the world, and how difficult (almost impossible) it was to arrange for proper, box-ticking funerals under lockdown, I was more convinced that hopefully, when the time comes, I would have made life and death easier for everyone.
Ali's essay first appeared at Raseef22, a Beirut-based news site founded after the Arab Spring.
* Made with the support of the Matatuhi Foundation *
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