Our Final Intimacies

Zuneera Shah


Curated for the website by Hassan Tahir Latif.


“Then they left their pews. For with some emotions one has to stand. They spoke, for they were full and needed to say. They swayed, for the rivulets of grief or of ecstasy must be rocked. And when they thought of all that life and death locked into that little closed coffin they danced and screamed, not to protest God’s will but to acknowledge it and confirm once more their conviction that the only way to avoid the Hand of God is to get in it” – Toni Morrison


A few weeks ago, I went funeral hopping in my sleep. I woke up between each funeral, distressed and half-awake, only to drift back into sleep and mark my attendance at the next. There were no dead bodies, but I understood that the deceased in question were people that I knew and loved.


This dream sequence didn’t surprise me: I had spent the previous day engulfed by the thought of death, much like everyone else in the country, after a plane carrying over a hundred passengers crashed in Karachi. As we refocused our attention to mourn this latest loss of life, the pile of bodies being claimed by Covid-19 continued to grow in the background, leaving us to butt heads with this metamorphosis of death, this shape-shifting of grief from one beast to another.


The first funeral that I attended on my funeral hop was of my great uncle’s—my mother’s Maamu—who died about two decades ago when I was five and whose funeral in fact happens to be my very first rendezvous with death.


On the day he died, my mother picked me up after school and we went over to his house. This wasn’t unusual for me; his house was two streets down my school and so we would drop by often on our way home. I looked forward to these visits, for Maamu welcomed me like his special guest and always gave me 10 rupees to buy candy. Thinking our nature of visit would be the same, I followed my mother through the unusually loud, usually dark corridor into their living room. My gaze, predisposed to land on his armchair, now found it empty. Instead, I took in the unforgettable image of wailing women clinging to a casket that held a dead body in its sunken middle—his body. In my dream, I relived this memory; only this time there was no body on display, and I was an adult far too familiar with death.


If my mother gave me the news on our way there, I no longer remember. Perhaps I’d failed to register what her words even meant. How does one introduce a child to death? I wonder how I knew instinctively at the sight of the body that he wasn’t just asleep—that this was a state of finality, an irreversible event, that he would never greet me again. Could I recognise then this monster called grief whom later in life I would get to know so closely? All I remember after that searing visual is crouching besides my mother on the floor as she too wept, feeling inadequately dressed in my white uniform which, sullied from the day’s rigour, paled in comparison to all my aunts’ crisp, starched white shalwar kameez.


When I hear of someone’s passing these days, the first thought that pops up in my head is of their funeral. I have to shake the thought away, issue self-reprimands that I mustn’t treat death as my personal project. Yet I return to the same questions: Are they going to have a funeral? A secret funeral? A funeral without a body? Would I go if it was somebody that I knew?


In a way, my dreams were finally solidifying my own position, giving me courage to admit what I already knew; that I couldn’t afford to miss any more funerals, that I wouldn’t want to. And yet, I think, what a privilege to remain unscathed so far, for these questions to carry—still—the lightness of being hypotheticals. With the numbers multiplying, I can’t help but fear if the first hit is getting closer to home and the threat of loss slowly gaining a familiar face.


I asked these questions in private again as I witnessed the site of the plane crash on my computer—the multiple bodies being delivered to a single house; the ones that would have to be put on a flight back to Lahore; those still missing and that may never be found—a logistical and emotional nightmare. But the nagging remained: what of their funerals? Their final send-offs?


I thought of S’s similar situation and how much it had bothered me: her body flew alone from one state to another. No one escorted her; no one came to pick her up. She was put on a plane by herself. How organised she seemed even in death, how self-reliant—taking care not to inconvenience anyone, as if already holding space for their grief. She was bathed and clothed, those final rites, by our aunt and handed over to strangers who would fly her from L.A. to Michigan. Who received her on the other side of the journey, hundreds of miles away, and where she sat on the plane this one final time, I never found out.


This was when I first found out what ‘body shipping’ was. Here’s what I learnt: a body in a casket goes with the cargo. Sometimes they’ll even strap you into a seat among the living and place a covering over you so as to not offend people’s living sensibilities.

If you’re lucky, they lay you down on a row of seats so you can fly comfortably. These, of course, have to be short flights. You can even purchase travel insurance that covers your body shipping—basically your return ticket—if you die while travelling. There are no travel classes to choose from; the dead are offered just the one incredibly expensive option, so it is simply best to drive the body when possible.


Maybe if Islam didn’t command that the earth swallow bodies immediately, someone would have driven her once more along the route she had come to know well. I remember now that she drove all the way to L.A. from Michigan alone when she first moved, her entire life packed in the trunk, and was proud of it. So, it made sense that she would make it back home on her own too.


Soon, we will move on from this. When this thought popped up in my head after the crash, I was ashamed. But I remembered how the world chose to go on and on after S, when I could swear that an unshakeable stillness had possessed the world. It even dragged on these past few months when the world seemed to freeze over at once, a tiny pulse kept alive through the trial.


I hurried over to my parents’ room after I heard about the crash to see if the news had reached them. I decided I would not break the news to them: they would inevitably find out and I would spare them these last moments of peace. Even before I entered the room, I could hear the sound of reporters discussing the tragedy. We said nothing—we had learnt to say nothing. My mother watched on with a tasbeeh in her hands, praying as always. I slipped into a corner chair in the room, careful not to violate the silence, never once looking at the screen, and trying to listen instead for the looping sirens punctuating the mayhem.

I like when the ambulances have their sirens on—that way, I know that someone can still be saved, that there is still the urgency to get somewhere. When they’re off—no red light, no blaring sound—I defer to the conclusion that it is too late, never entertaining less morbid explanations. My parents, however, are convinced the ambulances misuse the siren to escape the ugly Lahori traffic. They claim to have years of evidence, yet even they take no chances, hurrying to make way when an ambulance roars behind them.


There is a hospital around the corner from our house so in some ways I have grown up with frequent reminders of the feebleness of mortality as we pass by the shuffled yet unchanging volume of people that come to plead for their lives or of those they love—or how at the sight of them my mother launches into a litany of prayer under her breath.


The prayer, I know, is instinctive: she says Ya Ali Madad or Ya Allah Khair, or sometimes both—a tic I have internalised as reflex too, even if my belief in the rate of follow-ups on these supplications is not nearly as staunch as hers. O Ali, help! O Allah, make it well! These are more demands than requests, I now realise—strict in their ask, allowing no time for pleading add-ons. There is urgency in her prayer: Help! Fix this! Make it well! One can sense the addendum of “NOW!” although she doesn’t say it.


I am emboldened by this teaching: that there is no need to cajole the gods in matters of life and death. There is no shame; no such thing as asking for too much. I am reinforced the lesson every time my mother verbalises this audacity in the face of higher powers: even gods and their special agents accept that there is neither condition nor explanation to demand life—one simply asks and those above are expected to obey.


When S’s news came, there were no prayers offered, no demands made. I was given no warning, had no divine sense itching at me to submit a just-in-case request, a safety net of prayers to guarantee her life. Everything was already settled—she was dead. Just like that. Clearly, Ali and Allah hadn’t been paying attention, careless in their sifting through the barrage of prayers sent their way, letting the ones meant for S slip through the cracks, letting her slip through to the other side.


But the prayers immediately rolled off my tongue at the first sight of the crash, tripping over one another on their way to God’s court. There could still be survivors; there was still the glimmer of life. I could still intercede to demand life as my mother defiantly does. As I sorted through the updates from the location, I searched for blaring ambulances rushing back to hospitals, carrying passengers who could still be saved. I wanted Ya Ali Madad to work its magic like it does for my mother. Just as the plane fell out of the sky, I wanted a miracle to follow it. To douse the fire and save those in it. I wanted all of them to survive. For a moment, I even believed it would happen, that God would have to listen to me this once.


I was shocked at this occurrence because, a month ago, I had finally abandoned all attempts at prayer following the events of an unsettling night. It came to be that a friend’s sister was dying—unexpectedly and not from the novel virus. We began texting every day, sending a few messages back and forth, before he landed on the question that pegged our entire conversation: whether I had been praying for his sister. I lied that I was, but in truth I had not prayed since S’s death.


In fact, all I had done since I heard this unfortunate news was double down on my resentment against the lazy keeper of this machinery that we inhabited and which was constantly failing, its rusty screws shamelessly dangling from the ruins. I was afraid that the visual of both my fists in the sky would further anger the powers that flipped our switches at whim, and we desperately needed her switch flipped—this bout of bad luck reversed just as quickly as it had accelerated. He thanked me often and profusely as if I had some special arrangement with God and one that I was graciously leveraging for the sake of him and his family.


Hey Give Me a Pen, I'm Going to Re-write This Narrative by Seyhr Qayum (2018)

Perhaps he wanted me to barter the life of his sister with my already dead one. Use this occasion to call it even with God. Two birds with one stone, that kind of thing. I would pace around the room afterwards, convincing myself that wanting her to get well still meant that I was sending out prayer-like sentiments into the universe. I wanted the prayer to come, had waited for it many times in the past few years only to be left attending to my bruised hope, and even when something resembling prayer reached my lips, I felt that it would disintegrate into nothingness the moment it left my body, and so I forced it down each time. I couldn’t bear to see the air snatch it and swallow it before God even had a chance to register its meek vibration in the world.


I decided God needed a stronger demonstration of faith and remembrance, so I did what I remembered passed best as devotion: I knelt to the floor and prostrated in an attempt to revive some long-buried tingle of belief inside me, hoping that it would somehow make it to God this time.


When God ordered Muhammad, “Read”, he replied, “How?” I felt his anguish now, searching for the how on the cold floor, conversing with God suddenly in a tongue alien to me. I waited for the answer to come to me. So, I prayed and prayed and prayed, my forehead pressed to the floor, fingers splayed on the sides, unable to move, until night bled into dusk into dawn. I listened to the birds just beginning to whir outside and, in some unidentifiable moment, fell asleep. I woke up on the floor—curled onto the side, no longer prostrating—when the streets were still gaining light. Awash with failure, I vowed that I would not try to pray again.


Ramzan came and went without any sign of prayer. While those around me immersed themselves in the pursuit of strengthening their faith, I recoiled further from the idea of it. Yet here I was now—pleading for the lives of these strangers whose ability to live felt so personal, so dependent on my individual act of submitting to this higher power. I needed all these switches flipped. The fists would have to wait. For S, the trade-off of one life was insufficient, laughable, a slap in the face—God would have to give them all to me. Eventually, the news came that only two passengers survived. Once more, it seemed that I had failed. Once more it was that the Keeper had failed me.


When Prophet Muhammad’s wife and uncle passed away within a month of each other, he designated that entire year as the Year of Sorrow—Aam ul Hazn. I often wonder how he was able to put a cap on his grief. I want to ask: just one year? Perhaps there is comfort in knowing there is a hard cut-off for these things—that on day one of year two, we will no longer feel like this. A year you can easily hold in your palm, but we know that the uncertainty of grief will always spill over, leak through the spaces between your fingers. Like many of us, his grief too survived the years, was prolonged and nonlinear, making many sporadic appearances in the archive throughout his life.


This is a grievous year. In the beginning, we could still force some levity and banter in discussing how badly the year was turning out, but the stench of loss is now palpable all around. Still, we try to imagine an end for it, we hope that our current plight will expire along with this terrible year. That we will once more be allowed our closeness with death. In my contemplations on death these days, I return to this funeral passage from Sula by Toni Morrison:

“... they were screaming at the neck of God, his giant nape, the vast back-of-the-head that he had turned on them in death. But it seemed to her now that it was not a fist-shaking grief they were keening but rather a simple obligation to say something, do something, feel something about the dead. They could not let that heart-smashing event pass unrecorded, unidentified. It was poisonous, unnatural to let the dead go with a mere whimpering, a slight murmur, a rose bouquet of good taste. Good taste was out of place in the company of death, death itself was the essence of bad taste. And there must be much rage and saliva in its presence. The body must move and throw itself about, the eyes must roll, the hands should have no peace, and the throat should release all the yearning, despair and outrage that accompany the stupidity of loss.”

I was asked not to attend S’s funeral and was foolish enough to think that I had to honour this disinvitation, that somehow other people’s hurting had a monopoly over her final rites. I never had the chance to mourn her passing. I had no opportunity to say something, do something, feel something about her dying; I was left only with fist-shaking grief. I heard it was a contained affair. It rained at her funeral. She liked the rain.


And so it poured, as she sailed from this to that—this being the tangible world where grief and sorrow are understood to be things, not objects, but things, with their own fluctuating weights, densities, and the blind force to knock sense out of anyone for indefinite periods, all the way to that… That. I spent a good chunk of time pondering over what it was that she could have sailed towards but came up empty day after day. Still, I imagine myself to be among the crowd that accompanied her to the graveyard as the rain fell and she was shifted to her grave—that everlasting abode that takes no visitors.


Janazah—borrowed from Arabic, from the root ج ن ز , meaning “to wrap, to prepare a body for funeral”. It invokes touch, a physical closeness, and is a mandatory tenet of faith. In Islam, the deceased are given ghusl-e-maiyyat—the last purifying bath. It is a communal obligation: few have to participate but the entire community wields the responsibility of fulfilment.


My mother says it is the first act of honouring the dead, to offer them tenderness one last time before they are laid to rest, to let them know they are not yet alone. It is a chance for the dead and the living to converse one final time. There is nothing more alien in our culture than having strangers give you the final send-off and yet we are at an impasse for choice; Covid victims are not granted this final conversation, this last ritual of intimacy in the physical world. Instead, they are prepped and buried by strangers in hazmat suits.


I was grateful for my aunt who alone tended to S’s body, saving us the horrors of imagining S rising to have her final conversation, only to realise it was nobody that she knew—nobody that she could speak to and feel that she had been heard. Of course, there were still strangers involved, as I mentioned—death being a long assembly line where you are processed and packaged and passed on from one pair of hands to another on your way to God. The only thing one can hope for is for the touch of those hands to feel familiar.


How intimate these rituals of death: raw, entirely dependent on our ability to show up—both physically and emotionally. At our funerals, there is no expectation of civility, of holding back emotion. To bare your vulnerability, to cry without pause, to put your hurt on display is the norm. Even those who don’t feel it are expected to perform it. One cannot mourn alone, only grieve—the former a necessary balm for the latter.


Much like our current moment, the first condition of death is also acclimating to a new normal. I’ve begun to realise mourning exists to hold our hands through death and its antics until it drops us off at the island of grief. Mourning comes with infrastructure that one can lean on, walls that can take wear and tear.


I’m angry that the pandemic has not only robbed us of communal solace in the face of mass death, but that it has dismantled our very edifice of coping with it. It has outlawed and made alien the intrinsic features of loss—those intimacies that are like muscle memory; flocking over to the house of the bereaved, the site of people packed in a room, the safety of hugs and the presence of bodies to remind us we are still warm to the touch.

I used to hate this very infrastructure; this mechanical system that was immediately activated in the wake of death. I thought it superficial that people could summon sadness at a moment’s notice. I found their sorrow flaky and feigned. Those blood-boiling consolations revealed an acute tone-deafness—that the deceased were now in some better place; the rehearsed invocation of predestiny and some blind will; the sickening rhetoric of test and trial. How do you know? I wanted to scream as I offered polite nods instead.


Truth is, nobody knows. No one knows how to condole the bereaved, what to say. We pull out our mourning scripts and regurgitate the few sentences we’ve learnt—To Him we belong and to Him we shall return; the wish for paradise—the wish for an elevated experience of paradise—and patience and amnesia and more patience for those left behind. Afsos—sorrow, grief, concern, regret, vexation, condolence. These are the many translations and yet they cannot encapsulate the word and its many faces.


Mourning is a state that demands witness— that says to the world, look, I am destroyed, so you are obligated to feel the same. It involves few words, for most are unhelpful. It asks for an active sympathy; a confirmation that the world is in a state of indefinite imbalance for your world is out of balance, that it is just as bothered as you are, even if you know that the world and its inhabitants continue to spin with indifference.


I wonder if we’ll ever gather for funerals in the same manner; if we’ll break the rules for our own loved ones, or dictate in our wills that we would want to be visited one last time in flesh, that we be allowed—possibly forgiven—our selfishness in death. I wonder who among us will have the courage or naiveté to honour that; if there will be anger aimed at those who will condemn our ill-informed desire to get together, who will say it is inappropriate and irresponsible, who will decide not to show up in the interest of the living, choosing—as we often do—the living over the dead. I wonder if it will hurt.


It’s maniacal, irrational—all of that. Yet it is the current plague of my mind. Grief is already such a lonely affair, I can’t help but want us to be less alone in all of this. How will we rebuild from this? When next will there be hands to hold? When next will the body throw itself about with all its despair and outrage at the stupidity of loss? And what is loss but layers and layers of stupid, unintelligible feeling?


Here, I want to hold space for the dead who are already robbed of these final dignities and intimacies. Those who take their lives and are buried in haste and hush-hush, whose truths are not honoured in death, just as in their lives. I think of all those departed queer and trans people who are misrepresented in their final rites—misgendered, deadnamed and given farewell to lives they wilfully abandoned instead of the ones they chose and built. I mourn too for honour-killing victims—and all those lives taken by gender-based violence—who are often carried to their final resting place by the very people who put them there.


I wonder how many people at S’s funeral knew that she had ended her life. How many would have refused to attend her funeral or pray for her if they knew and whether anybody had bought the incongruous narratives being offered instead of the truth. The memorial too passed without any mention of this swept-under, yet known fact. Still, I found myself protecting others’ manufactured shame over S’s memory. I remember saying something to the effect of her loss being a wrench in my heart but, in retrospect, I realise that was a gross understatement—the truth is, I have not registered a heartbeat since.


The rest of my dream-funerals I only remember in distorted vignettes. Those too were nameless, body-less funerals which spoke to my current anxieties that it really could be anyone. In Lahore, people are dropping like flies as I write this—death will again knock on my door; I can feel it. There is no reason to pretend otherwise.


At the final funeral of my dream sequence, there was an enormous crowd, an outcome that is said to reflect the success of a funeral as well as a life well-lived. Here, I found myself among all my deceased loved ones. How lovely it was to see them! This was not set in the past; they were still considered to be very much dead but for some reason they had all ventured from their new abodes to visit me. I looked around for S who was nowhere to be seen, neither among the dead nor living. I was saddened by this, but I later realised it was probably her funeral that we were all gathered for; the one I never got to attend. I suppose bodies are helpful in that manner. I deliberated this possibility; it made sense that they had all come to hold me through the event and to escort her away, to let me know that she would be taken care of, that neither of us would be alone. Both my deceased grandmothers, seated on either side of me, exuded a calm that was palpable even when I woke up soon after. All this time, the only thing I’d wanted for S was to not be left alone. Somehow, knowing that my grandmothers accompanied her into the other realm, I felt some of my worries leave with them. When I woke up, my eyes were damp.


I like to think S and I are both in the Hand of God described by Morrison; a place where the acts of dying and honouring death exist in tandem. Where there is both dance and scream, celebration and mourning for a life lived and ended, where we are allowed to say and speak, to release this fullness and to be released from it. Here, both grievance and grief are rocked, held, cradled. Here, we can hold hands. Here, our final intimacies are sacred, beyond reprieve, and once more ours.


Zuneera Shah is a writer based in Lahore. Her work is featured in Jaggery, theTimes Literary Supplement, Drift Mag and other publications.


About the artist: Seyhr Qayum is an interdisciplinary artist who has been exhibiting her work internationally since graduating with a BFA in Painting in 2013, from Boston University. She is currently pursuing an MFA in fine art at the Pratt Institute, New York.

 

The artwork featured here is oil and spray paint on canvas (7ft x 5ft).