Processing My First Burial in Egypt

Treading on new ground is always a little uncomfortable, especially when there is an element of uncertainty. Learning my grandmother’s sister had passed away and was to be buried in Cairo, I realized England had acted as a barrier and emotional buffer my whole life, preventing me from facing such circumstances. Because this would be the first time, I didn’t really know what to expect.

I could imagine my aunt as a young girl, traveling to Egypt with her family, full of hope for a brighter future, seeking the peace they could not find in Syria. She married and moved to a city outside of Cairo, she gave birth to several children and raised them well. She celebrated their marriages, deep inside relieved her babies had flown the nest, yet wistful that time seemed to have flown by.

She was blessed to have held her grandchildren in her arms, smiled at their graduation ceremonies, their weddings, and to have then held her great-grandchildren in the very same arms that had held her children. Although time took a toll on her health, she was thankful she lived a happy, fulfilling life; a life full of family, love, loyalty, and commitment; things she always used to say to us.

Despite the fact that I didn’t know my aunt well and only met her around four times, all in the past year, I was distressed at how much she was suffering. But still, even then she was admired as a fulfilled woman who had carried out her mission in life with strength and perseverance, completing it gracefully.

Because she had passed away in the city she had lived in since she was married, the distance from there to Cairo meant we were going to wait at my grandmother’s house for a while, with relatives gently streaming in, offering their condolences. I watched my grandmother’s brother-in-law delicately write out an announcement to be printed in the newspaper of the passing of the deceased, who she was married to, a brief version of the family tree, and where and when the funeral would be held. Interestingly, the deceased’s name wasn’t going to be included, and would instead be, “The wife of so and so passed away” which caused quite an upstir. It depends on the family’s traditional ideas of “modesty”, is what I gathered from the debate, as many families choose to put both name and photograph of women, and newspapers’ obituary sections testify to this fact.

When the deceased arrived in a coffin in Cairo, we made our way to the mosque for the funeral prayer, which would be performed after the obligatory afternoon prayer. The mosque was quiet, filled with people who were especially there to pray for her soul. It is hard not to tear-up during the funeral prayer, not only because of the nature of the prayer, but because one day a group of people will be praying for your own soul. In groups of cars, we headed towards the cemetery after the prayer, to the same family burial ground where so many of my relatives have been laid to rest.

Watching the burial wasn’t as overwhelming as I imagined it was going to be. I felt quite a matter-of-factly about it as I watched — this was the inevitable, the only certain thing in life. The stone that closes the vault shut created such a thundering noise as the undertaker slid it open, as though even the earth was waiting for the certainty of death.

As a few male relatives gently took the shrouded body out of the coffin, they lowered her into the dark chamber, taking off their shoes before they entered. Those of us who had ventured inside the family graveyard had our eyes glued on the dark pit, as though we needed to witness every detail so that the world would not distract us from where we were all one day going to be laid.

Because my grandmother’s place was previously her father’s house, it was only right that she hold the wake after the burial. Like a typical wake shown in American and British television shows, food is prepared and guests come to eat and pay their respects, especially the relatives who had come from outside of Cairo.

Out of all the details that will be forever ingrained in my mind from the day, I can’t help but remember looking up and noticing the birds that were soaring high above the deep blue sky like a butter knife spreading margarine across a canvas.

I couldn’t help but notice the trees planted outside the graveyards that were rustling in the cool, spring-like wind, imagining another portal was open that we could not see or fathom.

And I can’t help but remember how strangely enough, I felt an emotion akin to hope, that maybe our lives could be as fulfilled as hers; that at the time of burial, my soul could look back on my obsolete body and say, yes, I lived my life completely, with God at the center of it all.

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