Washing the body

by Fawzia Muradali Kane

I was the coward. The others were calm. They knew what they had to do. Our cousin Zen was there, she had done this before. Zen is a happy person. She made us giggle in the waiting room, while the funeral director was telling us everybody have a sense they will pass about say maybe forty days before. Even if they go by accident, he said, and if you see somebody talking to the dead like normal, then you know it ain’t going to be long now. Our mother had lain on her sickbed, calling out for us to open the gate for my uncle and them to come in. They outside waiting by the gate, she cried, they in traffic jam, they need to free up. That uncle had died twenty years before. Zen said to the funeral man, eh heh? well that is a nice and cheerful thought! We had to walk past the showroom – elaborate decorated trays to choose one from, the man said, as Muslims don’t need coffins, only rattan baskets to degrade quick, dust to dust and thing. He was kind, in his way. Used to the need for speed of these burials. A lady led us into the washing room for the ritual to start. She went into the walk-in fridge and pulled Mammy out on a trolley, wrapped in her bedsheet. oh gorsh she stiff, big sister said, it don’t look like she. The lady talked us through the stages, how to wash, how to keep the parts covered to preserve modesty. What prayers to say. She handed out new rubber gloves and showed us the hose spray head. Middle sister unwrapped the bedsheet from Mammy slow and careful and then we all didn’t, couldn’t move. Then youngest sister steups and said, all you stop this stupidness okay this is not her okay this is just a shell. She snapped on the gloves and held her hands up like a surgeon and said let’s get to work. Brisk brisk just like so. And then and there we saw the fifteen years of her A&E nursing, the calm assessment of disaster with its triage of the distraught, not the images of our forever youngest etched in our minds, the toddler dancing in nappies, or hearing the teenager arguing in the porch with Mammy who would be sobbing: don’t ever say I don’t love you, you the last one, you go always be my baby!