Monday, January 9, 2006

Friends, family, funeral

Our friend Zaid's mother passed away and we attended her funeral yesterday.

It was an emotionally intense day. Two of our friends flew in from out of town - Bill from North Carolina, and Will from California - and all of us went to the funeral together. It's always great to see old friends, but we wished this reunion had been during happier circumstances.

Zaid's family is Muslim so the service was held in a mosque. Even though the day was very sad, it was also culturally enriching for me. It felt kind of like visiting another country. Experiencing a culture different from your own can be enlightening and also humbling. I felt like a child, ignorant of the customs and traditions around me and powerless in understanding my surroundings.

I had never been in a mosque before. Everyone must remove their shoes before entering the prayer hall. Women must cover their hair; I didn't have a headscarf so I had to borrow one from the mosque. Women and men sit separately, men in the front and women in the back. There are a few chairs in the back of the room, but besides those, everyone sits on the floor.

I was herded into a row where I was the only non-Muslim. I didn't count, but I'd estimate that there were at least 150 people in the room. I felt awkward not knowing when to kneel, stand, or pray. I felt self-conscious and worried that my ignorance would offend the believers around me. There was a beautiful young girl near me, who looked to be about seven years old. She kept looking back at me. She must have wondered, "Who let this idiot in? She never knows when to sit or stand."

One of the women in front of me was crying and kept hugging the woman next to her. I realized that I was standing directly behind Zaid's sister. I couldn't stop my own tears from falling.

I expected a eulogy honoring the memory of Zaid's mother but it never came. Instead, the imam delivered a message reminding us, "Death comes to all of us." Even though it was a sobering thought, it was also strangely comforting. The imam told us to prepare for death and to judge ourselves and our deeds.

After the service, we got into our cars to caravan to the cemetery. Someone stuck funeral procession flags with Arabic writing on all of the vehicles. Zaid's mother was buried in an Islamic cemetery. The gravestones were written in Arabic and English and I noticed one where I was standing. It was for a four-year-old child who passed away last year.

During the burial, the men gathered in the front once again, while the women stood behind. I couldn't really see too much. It was cold and muddy. Zaid's mother was lowered into the ground, with her head facing Mecca. Then, Zaid and his two brothers began shoveling in dirt to fill the grave. Other men were invited to assist, so Vic, Bill and Will also took turns with the shovels.

I had never seen Zaid look so sad, nor so serious. Most of us who know him think of him as a fun-loving friend who likes to joke and tease. Making him laugh is so rewarding! Watching him lead the men in filling his mother's grave was heartwrenching.

At one point, Zaid, his brothers, and his sister all stood around their father. I'll never forget the image of Zaid's father standing before his wife's grave with eyes closed, his four children surrounding him, crying, with their arms around him. You couldn't help but feel the intensity of their family bond.

Zaid's mother was not just the matriarch of her family, but she was also a leader in her community. She will be missed.

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