Monday, January 09, 2006

Thoughts from the Eid Graveyard

Today, I decided to go home. It was an interesting experience. Quite a few people had already arrived. There were flowers everywhere, and plenty of marble and tiles. It’s a huge house I’ll be sharing with thousands of others. Each of us will have a small unit, barely wide enough to lay down in. Yep, our very own piece of Rookwood.


I know there are millions who choose not to believe in God. But you’d be crazy not to believe in death. Media moguls may be able to evade taxes, but death overtakes us all.

So when a friend called me this morning to tell me her father had passed away, I sensed that I’d be visiting Rookwood Cemetry fairly soon.

Rookwood Necropolis is one of the heartlands of Australian multiculturalism. If we can’t seem to get along in real life, in death the various faiths and cultures lay side-by-side in peace and quiet. In death, all conflicts are brought to an end and all guns are silenced.

I arrived at the Muslim section of the cemetery at exactly 4pm, the time given for burial. A whole bunch of people were leaving another burial. I presumed they were there for someone else’s funeral. I was wrong.

Islam has a very simple approach to death. When a person dies, you bury them as soon as possible. No point waiting around. Say a small and simple prayer in congregation and follow it up with a burial.

I managed to reach the relevant grave. It was already a covered mound of dirt with a small sign stating the deceased’s name, date of death and age. Perhaps over the next few weeks, the grave will be embellished with a marble frame and a headstone. A simple garland of flowers was placed at the foot of the mound.

I said a short prayer (an all-purpose prayer known as the “Fatiha”) and recited some verses of the Qur’an before blowing a soft breath in the general direction of the deceased. Now that I think about it, I should also have said an additional greeting upon entering the cemetery. “Peace be with you, inhabitants of the graves. You have preceded us and we will be following you shortly!”

On my way back to the car, I noticed quite a large crowd had gathered and were walking toward various graves. Two women wearing headscarves were seated at a grave and were reading the Arabic text of the Qur’an. From the design of their scarves, I could tell they were Turkish.

I walked past graves of all sizes, colours and types. Some graves were just mounds of dirt. Others had a marble frame around the mound whilst others had the mound covered in a slab of marble. Some graves had flowers growing out of them whilst others didn’t.

How graves are kept and maintained is an area of some theological controversy amongst Muslim religious jurists. I guess ordinary mourners just do whatever makes them feel comfortable and helps their grieving process.

One gravestone even had a map of Cyprus on it, signifying that the person buried was a staunchly Cypriot Muslim. Another gravestone described the deceased as “Bapak” (Malay for father), and the name of the deceased had typically Malay abbreviations of Arabic names.

People of all ages were buried there. Quite a few had reached death after spending less years than my 36 in this world. Others weren’t much older. I guess I’d better start pulling my spiritual socks up.

Muslims of all nationalities, ethnicities and sects are buried in the Muslim section. Today was a special day for Muslims to visit their deceased loved ones as it is the day before the biggest and most important feast of the year – the Eid al-Adha or “Feast of the Sacrifice”.

The two Eid’s (the other labelled “Eid al-Fitr” and held to celebrate the end of the fasting month of Ramadan) are traditionally times when family and loved ones get together. Even the deceased are included in the festivities, a reminder to those celebrating that death brings an end to all celebration as well as all sorrow.

Tomorrow, thousands will gather at the mosques across Sydney, Melbourne and other cities across the world to celebrate the Eid. I am not sure how my friend will celebrate. She will probably still be mourning. I’ll have to figure out what would be the least insensitive way to wish her a happy Eid.

Death is a sobering thought. After spending hardly 30 minutes surrounded by death, I couldn’t help but think about my own life. When the destination is kept at the front of your mind, the journey itself takes on a whole new meaning.

(Readers are requested to recite fatiha for Mr Abraham Elkhatib and for their own deceased relatives.)

© Irfan Yusuf 2005

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