Muslim communities share burial duties

HERNDON, Va. Deidre “Nusaybah” Ritchie knelt down and gently braided the brown hair of the woman’s body lying in a cocoon of white sheets.

After demonstrating to the women gathered around her how to wash the body with soap and sweet-smelling camphor, Ritchie finished wrapping the woman in several layers of seamless white cloth, which five minutes earlier were a set of store-bought queen-sized bed sheets.

(Above: Deirdre “Nusaybah” Ritchie demonstrates how to wash the face of a corpse before burial. “I approach the dead persons like I would a newborn baby: they are in a very vulnerable position,” she said. PHOTO BY ANDREA USEEM)

“Performing this service for others is a reminder that death is a certainty for all of us,” said Ritchie, 39, as her audience of more than 20 Muslim women took notes and asked questions on how to prepare a body for burial in accordance with Islamic law.

The woman in the sheets was actually a volunteer. The women gathered in the cold conference room peppered Ritchie with questions, such as whether or not hair extensions should be removed before burial (answer: yes, if possible).

Like a midwife who makes house calls, Ritchie always keeps an emergency kit on hand in her car, which includes sheets, scissors, wash cloths, soap, camphor and a small bucket. She is one of many volunteers responding to calls nearly every week to wash and shroud Muslim bodies for burial.

While most Americans turn the bodies of loved ones over to funeral homes for embalming or cremation, volunteers including Ritchie work with Muslim families to administer the final preparations, in accordance with Islamic teachings.

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