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Growing Faith Teaching Our Children How to Mourn
“We teach each other the prayer so that when someone dies, we are ready to fulfill our obligations.”
This is Growing Faith, a monthly column about parenting and faith coauthored by Saadia Faruqi and Shoshana Kordova .
Shoshana: When my mother’s father died the summer before fifth grade, I didn’t attend the funeral. I didn’t even know he was dead. Instead of watching my uncle shovel dirt over the plain wooden coffin in Saba’s grave, I sat in the backseat of my family’s station wagon with my two younger sisters, our father driving. We were heading home from the camping trip in Virginia that had been aborted when my mother received a phone call at the campground office and flew to Queens in the middle of the night. “Get here as fast as you can,” she was told. We Jews don’t like to leave the dead waiting for their funeral, and there’s no need for them to linger if the only missing child happens to be female: Respect the dead; tell daughters to hurry up and get home, or they might miss it.
It felt unnatural, all three of us being in the car in my mother’s absence. When my father pulled into a rest stop and turned off the air conditioner, we were unbearably hot, still wearing the sweatshirts we had donned in the chilly morning air back at the campground. Our T-shirts were still packed away in the pop-up trailer hitched to the back of the car.
It was only after we returned to New Jersey that we were informed Saba was dead. A silent heart attack, they thought. We drove to Queens and found the mirrors covered in sheets, neighbors paying shiva calls to comfort the mourners. My uncle’s wife took us to the pizza place, where we would be out of the way.
Saadia: I’ve attended many Islamic funerals in my life. There was my paternal grandfather when I was thirteen, then my maternal grandfather and uncle when I was fourteen. By then, I felt I was too old to ask questions like Where does the soul go after death? or Why did my loved one die in the first place?
As an adult I have soldiered through many other funerals, trying to make sense of death and grief. My children seem to have none of the qualms that I do. Death is almost cartoonish for them, because they see it all the time on television and video games. “You’re dead!” they shout at every small thing, as if the cessation of breath and the stillness of the body is something hilarious.
At our mosque, we’ve attended a few funerals, but all they really see is a solemn crowd and a closed casket. So what do I teach them about death and funerals? I often wonder.
Shoshana: Was I reacting to my exclusion from my grandfather’s funeral when I picked up my children early one day last year—the two-year-old from daycare, the four-year-old from preschool, the first- and second-graders from elementary school—and loaded them into a large taxi to attend the funeral of one of their great-grandmothers? I can’t say I was thinking about it consciously, but as I packed snacks and a toy spoon and stacking cup to keep the littlest busy, I had no doubt my children should be permitted a last goodbye.
The funeral of my husband’s paternal grandmother, near Tel Aviv, was different from others I’d attended. Due to lack of space, some Israeli cemeteries now conduct what I think of as bunk-bed burial. Instead of lying six feet under as we’ve come to expect, the dead are placed inside a wall, the layers stacked one on top of the other, heading up instead of down. Granny Bessie’s body was placed on what the cemetery people called a drawer, a niche in the wall—along with some soil, so the Jewish tradition of burying the dead in the earth could continue to be upheld. A man cemented a large slab in place to seal her in.
It’s one of those things that makes complete sense on a rational level; people don’t stop dying just because land is at a premium. But whereas religious ritual has the benefit of familiarity, there was very little during that funeral that felt familiar, unless you count the Cask of Amontillado atmosphere I couldn’t quite shake off. I climbed up the metal stairs of a wheeled platform, like the ones they use in airports, and placed a small stone on the ledge behind which Granny Bessie’s body lies. It’s the Jewish way of announcing: I was here.
Saadia: My father died in Pakistan in 2012, after a very long illness. We’d already visited him during his last days, and couldn’t go back again so soon afterwards. So his grandchildren missed his funeral, and the lessons one can learn from such a somber occasion.
I had already prepared myself for his passing. During his illness, I would sit close to him and recite passages from the Quran—Chapter Yasin especially, which is to be read at times of great hardship and near death. I would go to bed in that small Pakistani room in my parents’ house and dream of dark vigils, silent funerals and weeping strangers. I never recognized any of the people I saw in my dream, which was fitting because so many of his own family would be absent from his funeral.
Later, when we did visit Pakistan again, my mother took us to the graveyard where my father was buried. It was then that I realized I had never visited a graveyard before. My children looked around with big, round eyes, and so did I. It felt eerie, as if we were in the middle of ancient souls, all gathered to ask the question: Where have you been?
In the Islamic tradition, one offers a little greeting when one enters the graveyard: “Peace be upon you, O dwellers of the graves.” It makes the dead more real, closer. I offered the greeting out loud, and asked my children to follow me. They did. We went to pray the Fatiha, the opening chapter of the Quran, at my father’s grave. My daughter, aged three at that time, couldn’t understand where Nana was. Why was he under the ground , she kept asking. How could he breathe?
Shoshana: My oldest daughter was kind of obsessed with death when she was around four. Her stream of questions was set off not by a human death, but that of her friend’s dog. What about his eyes , she kept asking. Can he still see? What did they do with him after he died? Is the big hole in the ground like the hole that Angelina Ballerina falls into with Henry and they can’t get out?
And a few months later, just when I thought the rounds of bedside conversation and sidewalk conversation and kitchen table conversation about death had finally exhausted itself, she came up with a new one: When I told you I needed water last night and nobody answered me, I thought you died.
Saadia: In 2016, I was diagnosed with a serious heart condition. It was unexpected and worrisome and, being me, I fully expected to die from it. This is a habit I have, to think the worst about everything in the desperate hope that my fears don’t come true. I cleared my calendar, refused new assignments, gave the details of my bank account to my husband. My children couldn’t help but notice that I was preparing for something drastic. It showed in my daughter’s temper, in my son’s crying bouts. Finally, my husband told me to stop because it was scaring the children.
It was scaring me, too. Not the impending heart surgery, but the idea of a funeral. I got a pedicure because I wanted my nails to look nice in the coffin. I dyed my roots for the same reason. It was illogical, but it made me feel calmer, in control. I wondered if my father had done the same thing, or my uncle who died of cancer, or any number of people I knew who went through long illnesses during which they expected to die.
There is a prayer Muslims offer at funeral services. It is short and sweet; it is in Arabic and one has to learn it. At our mosque, we teach each other the prayer so that when someone dies, we are ready as a community to fulfill our obligations. This year, I will teach my children that prayer.