DR GABRIELLE JAMELA HOSEIN
SUNDAY WAS my dad’s birthday. He would have been 77. Under blue sky, I visited the family cemetery plot, where his grandfather and both parents are also buried, and wondered about what kind of relationship one should have with the dead.
I hadn’t seen him on his last birthday and wasn’t sure if I regretted it or was at peace with my reasons. Now, here I was on this birthday, six feet above him and unclear whether it mattered, whether he knew or what to feel.
Such mixed feelings extended to the grave itself. My dad wanted to be cremated and his ashes scattered on his mother’s grave. Cremation is forbidden in Islam, and was unthinkable to us, creating a persistent sense of discombobulation that I’d failed to fulfil his last wishes.
As I stood looking down, I considered whether he felt suffocated by soil and trapped in the dark. I wondered if he feared the angels, Munkar and Nakir, who interrogate the deceased and accompany the soul on its journey to Jannah or Jahannam, or the dimensions of Heaven or Hell.
One late night, a few weeks after his burial, I stood looking across heavy rain to the cemetery, fervently hoping that my dad’s sense of justice, his contribution to the region, and glimpses of his generosity, love, goodness and humour would have transformed his grave into a luxurious space for his spirit to await an afterlife beyond our comprehension.
If not, the angels would have beaten him brutally, as they do sinners and disbelievers, in what is feared as the torment of the grave. It’s not for the faint-hearted, for the dead person is struck a blow with an iron hammer which could turn a mountain to dust, the grave narrows and compresses until the body’s ribs interlock, and the soul is torn from the body by cutting veins and nerves like a skewer ripping through wet wool.
I was surprised one could worry for the dead. I chastised myself for not doing what he asked.
I had selfish reasons justified by the merest of fleeting memory. I had stood next to my dad with my hands cupped at his mother’s funeral, at that very grave, when I was four years old. It’s a vivid, slightly blurred and instant image, like a polaroid. Something about it rooted in my heart. I held on to it like an old, precious photograph. He was six feet tall. I was so little, loyal, awed and adoring.
Forty years later, I couldn’t let him go without the same cupped gesture. There was inexplicable solace in this repeating image, for I was a child then and it was the child in me burying my dad now, connecting to him almost as the four-year-old I was at the time, imprinting another layer on memory.
My dad had also fasted for Ramadan, and was praying in the masjid, built on family land where he was born, the day before he died. The cemetery was close by; it was an unexpectedly small circle of life. He had returned home in both belief and location. He would be able to answer the angels’ questions. A Muslim burial was without question.
So, on Sunday, I found myself at his grave while my brother pulled away overgrown grass, and I contemplated whether the three generations buried below our feet ever conversed, whether they quarrelled and forgave, or shared each other’s sighs, whether their spirits intermittently roamed, or whether the stillness and silence was peaceful.
With Ziya nearby, I told myself that being buried in your mother’s grave is the most profound kind of return. It must be more comforting than returning to one’s religion, childhood home, or perhaps entering Heaven. There is no closer relationship with another human being for, once, two were only one. The thought seemed to quiet the blurry four-year-old hovering in Sunday’s heat, and her imprecise worry.
One night, my sister and I both dreamt my dad. It felt like he came to visit, appearing from nowhere, returning nowhere. I learned that to dream those who are gone is a gift, and sometimes it makes you grieve.
This time, I left without significant emotion, but deep exhaustion. The afterlife is a whole world to be constructed in one’s imagination. It takes time, remembering and realisation to find the right pieces to give it solidity and harmony.
Relationship with the dead also requires nurturing grace and forgiveness along the way.
Love lives on, Dad, happy birthday.
Diary of a mothering worker