October 25, 2013
I saw a wooden coffin, I answered the phone call to tell us that Umma, as we called our mother in Bengali, had left us, and later that same night saw her lying still like a ragdoll in the hospital ward. The burial was almost immediate. Within hours I was at the register office recording Umma’s death to get the certificate we needed to release her body. At home, my sisters were collating every teacup and saucer she had ever bought, for the well-wishers who were flooding our house with prayers.
We knew about the concept of heaven and hell and were warned that when a parent dies, their children’s prayers are the most important ones. Although a whole village in Bangladesh spent three days reading prayers for Umma, ours would have most impact.
Packed away in a suitcase in my parents’ bedroom was the white shroud that Umma was to be buried in. It had been washed in holy water from Mecca, for when the time came. She had been so busy talking about death and reminding us where to find the fabric that she never had a chance to explain to me and my three sisters that as her daughters we had duties after her death. In Islam it is a daughter’s duty to wash her mother and prepare her for the afterlife; boys attend to deceased fathers. Having never attended a funeral, I didn’t know what this involved. I soon discovered it wasn’t an elaborate bathe, but a wash down with sponges, towels, buckets of water and the bar of soap from my carrier bag.
There were two elder women in charge who directed us where and how to clean her. Umma was so devoted to her religion that I sensed she would be proud her daughters were taking part in such a symbolic ritual. As her limbs were lifted and we took it in turns to scrub her, it seemed as if her expressions were changing. She was a puppet, being moved, bent over, turned from side to side. I didn’t know it was possible to get this close to a dead person, let alone share in the most intimate experience their body would ever go through. She was washed an odd number of times. I can’t remember which number we settled on, just that the procedure was repeated until we were tired.
Afterwards she was dried with towels and scented with rose water. The room was suffused with the fragrance of Turkish delight, though she never wore perfume. Her beauty regime consisted of applying hair oil and moisturiser. I never saw her wear makeup and she had the smallest wardrobe of anyone I’ve ever known; just a handful of saris and blouses and petticoats she had made herself. Just as she had led a modest life, so it was for her funeral. Umma’s hair was combed and plaited and her body wrapped in the white fabric that Ubba, my father, had brought back from Mecca. When she was wrapped and laid to rest we anointed her with more rose water. We took her to a newly opened Muslim burial ground, she was buried there and her spot was marked with a hand-painted a plaque with my mother’s name and dates of birth and death.
Not everyone has a chance to say goodbye properly to someone they love, but I did more than that.