The toll of burying Grenfell’s dead: London’s Muslim undertakers
For those who cared for the living and the dead after the Grenfell Tower fire, the struggle for justice continues.
“I’d never heard of Grenfell before. I didn’t think there were that many Muslims in Chelsea,” exclaims Abu Mumin, 48, of Eden Care, a Muslim end-of-life support charity run from a compact, green and white-walled Whitechapel office.
It’s a frantic Monday and the hallway outside clacks with rapid footsteps as doors open and close in quick succession. Mumin is bright, bubbly and dressed in a black suit. As he recounts the London Muslim community’s mobilisation during the Grenfell Tower fire on June 14, 2017, he’s joined by two female colleagues, Jusna Begum, 43, and Tahera Ayazi, 42.
When the blaze began at around 1am local time during the month of Ramadan, it was nearby Muslims, awake after tarawih night prayers, who were among the first to raise the alarm.
At around 10am the following morning, five seven-seater vans packed with food, water and blankets collected by East London Muslims eager to help arrived on the scene.
It was chaos; there was smoke and fire pluming from the burned-out tower and people everywhere.
“At first, we didn’t know who were the victims and who were the supporters,” says Mumin.
‘I will never forget the first burial’
In the weeks and months that followed, Eden Care and the nearby Haji Taslim funeral directors played a crucial role, performing the Islamic funeral rites and burials for the 42 Muslims counted among the fire’s 72 confirmed dead.
“I will never forget the first burial I did,” says Tahera, recalling a young man whose father had died in the blaze.
“They were on the 17th or 15th floor and because his father’s got dementia he couldn’t get [him] out of the flat. He had to leave his father … When we spoke to him, you could just see a shell there. He was like somebody without a soul.”
“I’d never done children before that,” adds Jusna, a former office recruitment consultant who turned to Muslim burials after her sister’s long-fought battle with cancer.
“I didn’t see [the child] as a body, I saw her as my own.”
“I was saying, ‘She’s gone to paradise, she’s gone to Jannah.’ That’s what we believe. She was from one of the families where she’d lost her mum, dad and her baby brother. But when we [buried] her mum, she’d hugged her son and the body was melted, stuck to her.”
London’s oldest Muslim funeral service
Muslim burials require strict protocols. A body must be committed to the ground as soon as possible – typically within 24 hours of death. It must be purified in a ritual body-washing known as ghusl and wrapped in a white shroud before funeral prayers – janazah – can be conducted, and then buried without a coffin.
Haji Taslim, London’s oldest established Muslim funeral service, coordinated the burial process after Westminster Public Coroners began to slowly release the Grenfell bodies.
Within strolling distance of Eden Care, Haji Taslim’s office sits sandwiched between an Islamic bookshop and the west edge of the East London Mosque. Its purpose-built rooms for washing the dead run deep under Whitechapel High Street.
He was crying as they were bringing the five coffins out. I wasn't looking at the coffins; I was just looking at him. I didn't know how to speak to him. What do you say to that person?
It’s late afternoon and 40-year-old Abu Khalid, the nephew of the company’s founder, after whom it is named, has already conducted two funerals. Amid constant phone calls, he explains the spiritual significance of ghusl.
“We’re being presented back to Allah. Before we pray our five daily prayers we wash and prepare ourselves: Wudhu. So, this is our final bath.”
Downstairs, two imams are performing ghusl on a recently deceased man. A plastic sheet covers his torso, lit by the bluish glow of an overhead strip light. They wash gently and attentively at high speed: neck, ears, sweeping motions across the back, stomach, legs and feet before shrouding the body.
Haji Taslim are no strangers to tending to the dead following tragic events, having dealt with the aftermath of the 7/7 London bombings and the Ladbroke Grove rail crash in 1999.
The logistics of both remained manageable for a company employing six full-time staff, with three fatalities referred to them after the crash, and five after the bombings on July 7, 2005. However, the scale of Grenfell presented major complications.
“If somebody just passed away from an incident or died at home and was at Westminster Coroners, yes, once the coroners have issued papers we could go and get a body out of the mortuary within 15 or 20 minutes,” explains Khalid.
But with victim identification via DNA and dental records pending a full investigation, death certificates, mortuary release forms and cemetery burial orders suffered extensive delays, contradicting Islamic conventions of rapid burial and angering families.
There were also complications with washing and shrouding bodies – many of which were merely collections of charred remains pulled from the ashes. But it was the funerals themselves which left an indelible imprint on all who helped coordinate them.
“The funerals that really stuck out for me were the younger people in the fire,” says Khalid, citing a young man who’d lost five family members whose bodies were so badly burned they required coffin burials.
“I just sat there and I looked at him. He was crying as they were bringing the five coffins out. I wasn’t looking at the coffins; I was just looking at him… I didn’t know how to speak to him.”
“What do you say to that person?”
Dealing with death on a mass scale
Each Islamic organisation involved in Grenfell offered their services for free, with Eternal Gardens cemetery, located in the southeast London borough of Bexley, conducting Muslim and non-Muslim burials side by side.
The etiquette of Islamic burials states that emotion should be restrained. But this became problematic with so many burials of people from different cultures and religions taking place in close proximity.
“We had an incident where first aid had to be given because a woman fainted. She actually stopped breathing. They had to resuscitate her. Twice,” says Jusna.
On this occasion, volunteers from the East London Mosque formed a human barrier, linking arms to screen and separate each burial.
“When you’re dealing with death on a mass scale like this, it’s a question of how you deal with it. There’s no time to educate people. There’s no time for anything,” says Tahera. “You have to be thinking on the spot.”
‘What do you tell someone whose entire world has collapsed?’
Nineteen kilometres away from Whitechapel High Street: from the fast food outlets and the crowded market stalls selling dried fish and colourful saris sits Gardens of Peace Muslim Cemetery. It’s here, on a turn-in from a sparse, windblown suburb, that 34 of Grenfell’s Muslim dead are buried.
Fig and pomegranate trees line its paths and wild geese dot the banks of a small, bubbling stream. Mohamed Omer, 61, an eloquent, unassuming man with a warm demeanour and the cemetery’s head trustee, conducted 32 of the burials personally.
“Were there challenges? Yes. Lots of challenges. The first was trying to keep the press and media out,” he says turning his palms upwards.
When burying multiple family members, there were also major concerns that graves dug next to each other would collapse.
“The biggest challenge was that we had already buried a few of the families from Grenfell when we were struck with another tragedy: The Finsbury Park murder,” he says, referring to a van attack outside a north London mosque on June 19, 2017, that left one man dead.
“So, we had to handle two different scenarios, but at the same level of media interest. This was something which was very difficult for us. In addition, we had normal burials which were taking place and each of them, for a family, is a tragedy. So, we had to handle all that at the same time.”
The sky clouds over as Omer walks towards the gravesites, a brisk wind bending the poplars that line the outer edges of the cemetery.
“Was it difficult for me to handle it?” Yes, it was,” he says solemnly.
“What do you tell an individual whose entire world has collapsed? He’s lost his wife, he’s lost his two children, he’s a broken man. How do you tell that person everything will be okay? It’s not possible.”
“How do you tell a son who has just buried his parents and his brother and his sister, ‘Please have strength and patience,’ when that same individual is at the gravesite muttering, ‘Please forgive me, please forgive me.'”
“How do you come to terms with lowering a mother and placing a stillborn child who died in the fire next to her?”
Waiting for justice
He stops, pointing towards an earthen mound and small granite marker: Mohammed Alhajali, the first Grenfell victim to be buried and one of two Syrian brothers.
The grave is identical to the thousands of others stretching from the middle distance out into tiny silver specks. Behind him, the London skyline is the size of a child’s thumbnail.
Although more than a year has passed since the fire, for many the pain remains fresh.
“One of the aunts whose niece has been buried here still has nightmares. There was one time, in the winter months, when we close as it gets dark early,” he says staring into the distance and recalling her frantic need to visit.
“She said, ‘Uncle, I need to see the grave today. If I cannot see the grave today, I will not be able to sleep’… This is what the public does not understand: this is the real trauma that these families are going through.”
“And the only thing they want is justice.”
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