I learned the word ‘janazah’ on April 22nd 2019.
We were outside the Periyamulla Jummah Masjid, gray clouds were rolling in overhead and long white flags were hanging from every light post, fluttering in the wind.
‘I thought women weren’t allowed inside during prayer?’ I hissed at my Muslim friend as she tugged my hand and pulled me inside.
‘It’s janazah, anyone can pray’ she hissed back, succeeding in pulling me in through the open doors.
While we were standing with the rest of the women towards the back of the masjid, she whispered to me again ‘janazah, it is like a funeral prayer, a prayer of mourning after yesterday’.
Having to write about that day for work, and to process my own feelings about it, I learned two more words.
Kafan, the white cloth that was shrouding 13-year old Fathima’s body .
Sandak, the silver case in which it was placed and borne on the shoulders of men to the cemetery nearby.
Fathima had lost her life when a suicide bomber detonated at the St. Sebastian’s Church Katuwapitiya the day before. Her father is Muslim but her mother is Catholic, which is why she was at the church.
I remember her looking so peaceful she could almost have been asleep. I remember the Catholic ladies at the mosque frantically reciting the rosary over her body as it was carried away.
I faintly remember her face.
One year later, the whole of Sri Lanka is haunted by janazahs denied their rightful rest.
‘It is the prayer that is prayed, but it is also the body after we have prepared it for burial’ the same Muslim friend tells me over the phone ‘we don’t just call it a dead body, you know, we give it some respect and dignity by calling it janazah.’
For months now, the government has enforced a policy of mandatory cremations for COVID-19 victims. It flies in the face of science, and in the face of beliefs integral to the Islamic faith. Muslims are no longer afraid of catching the virus as much as dying while these orders are still in place.
Having one’s loved one’s body effectively desecrated in the name of ‘safety’ is not a burden that many will have to bear, or many will justify bearing to erase one community’s overwhelming grief.
Last year, we turned on the switch that cremated my grandmother. This year, we lower my grandfather’s coffin into a family grave. These choices open to us Christians – that either one is fine, and not expressly prohibited by our faith – seem indulgent this year.
The man is showing me a photo on his phone of the death certificate the hospital gave him for his father.
COVID-19 is listed as one possible cause of death. He is never shown PCR test results, and no one in his family tests positive. He is only called after his father’s body is cremated, to be informed of it as if on second thought.
The grave he had prepared in the cemetery behind their mosque close to the ocean will remain empty.
For those not conscious of the many souls gone to an uneasy rest in these last few months, the ‘holiday season’ dawns as it usually would. Crackers all day on December 1st all along the Catholic belt.
Just over a week later, we are hearing of the death and cremation of baby Shaykh.
20 days old, he died alone in hospital, and was cremated without his parents’ consent. Parents who had waited six years for him to be born.
A photo of him, a little pink being, in a light blue baby shirt with embroidered flowers, placed on a colourful polka-dotted blanket, moves people to their core.
White flags are placed in mourning of him – and others, but mostly him – along the gates at where he was cremated. Men in uniforms, and men not in uniforms but still wielding their power, remove these in the dead of night. Imagine that, fear over a few white strips of cloth that are blowing in the wind.
Clear across the country, more flags are being strung up – for the baby, and against the orders that forced his cremation and those of many others.
A photo emerges of a little boy, draped in the simple white kafan, joining men as they demonstrate before a government office. He is squinting in the sharp Eastern sun. Behind him is a poster bearing a photo of the cremated baby, printed in large size and strung up on a fence, bearing the text ‘sorry, son’.
The little one might have had no idea why he was there, and the gravity of the issue he had been brought to ‘demonstrate’ against. He doesn’t seem to have realized that the photo was being taken either, and just how jarring it was to see his small frame next to the picture of the little lost one.
It has me thinking of another little boy, one whom Christians spend most of December celebrating.
A baby whose birth incurred the jealousy and wrath of a king who ordered a murderous rampage to have him finished off. Maybe it’s because I heard ‘Mary, Did You Know?’ on the radio last week, or maybe I’m just reading too much into this.
I watch life-sized nativity scenes being placed outside churches. The bed of straw, meant for the little boy, is left empty till Christmas morning.
It reminds me of another baby’s cradle that will remain empty.
‘May Allah cool the fires that burn his body’ reads a post in Tamil, announcing the cremation of a Muslim teenager a few months ago.
Nearly every comment on every such post is a wave of this verse. If you scroll through, reading it out loud in your head as the intonations rise and fall, the melodic words on repeat seem almost cruelly meditative.
Inna Lillahi wa inna ilayhi raji’un
We belong to God and to Him we return.