This essay is part of Survive. Thrive. Evolve: How Two Years of the Pandemic Impacted Us Around the World, a global HuffPost project featuring individuals writing about how their lives were affected after two years of the Covid-19 pandemic.
As a burial expert, I’m confronted by grief all the time. The pandemic, however, was a whole new ball game. And it changed me.
My mother, who was my best friend, died in 2013, and it had a profound effect on me and the work I do.
I didn’t have the best childhood. I was naughty in school and, after experiencing some racist violence, I even meddled with gang life. But my mother helped ground me. She believed I could do more with my life. At the age of 27, I went to university and I turned my life around.
I became a social worker, doing gang mediation and working with vulnerable young people in the London borough of Tower Hamlets. I left the organisation after 12 years of service and in 2013 joined the 13 Rivers Trust charity and its programs: the Muslim Burial Fund and Eden Care UK, a service led by Black, Asian and minority ethnic folks that supports and empowers the terminally ill and those at the end of their lives.
Our objective is to work with communities, both young people who have been left behind, and older, terminally ill people without loved ones. The work is inspired by how our parents – first-generation Bangladeshis – had limited language and resources, but always supported their families and friends in Bangladesh as well as our community here in the UK.
But when COVID-19 hit, we found ourselves facing an unprecedented challenge. As part of my work with the Muslim Burial Fund, I began performing Islamic rituals and burial rites. My team and I assisted in the burial of 152 people during the peak of pandemic deaths.
Normally, the team would attend to 30 deaths a year, but in the pandemic, we saw that same figure in a month.
Some days, I was burying up to eight bodies a day.
We were inundated with referrals from all walks of life. The Muslim community suffered disproportionate deaths and illness in the UK at the beginning of the Covid crisis. So many people were dying.
There were so many restrictions on social contact, too. There were a couple of cases we saw where children who had said goodbye to their dad, who went to the hospital to be treated for Covid and they never saw him again.
Only a few people were allowed in the burial ground, including us. We had to use Facebook Live so that people could be part of the Janazah, or Muslim funeral.
It was difficult. Normally, I’m a fun-loving, soft-centred man. But this job makes you hard. You’ve got to be hard, internally, to cope with death every day.
After work, I’d usually spend time with loved ones, joking and laughing away the stresses of life. But being so involved with grief every day, it took away a part me. I would come home, shower and go to bed immediately. Sometimes I would break into tears. Imagine a 50-year-old man bawling. It was draining burying people every day.
Before Covid, the last time I remember having to put aside my own emotions and just get on with helping other people was the Grenfell Tower disaster.
When that fire broke out in the early hours of June 14, 2017, many Muslim worshippers like myself were still awake due to Ramadan. In a way, it was a good thing because my team and I were able to mobilise quickly and we became some of the first responders to come to the aid of Grenfell victims and families, many of whom were Muslim.
By April 2020, the number of Muslims dying of Covid was so high that burial space in London began to run out. So we had to start doing Saff burials.
Saff burials allowed 10 graves on the same plot of land but in different chambers, with the deceased laid out in a dignified way. At the time, the waiting list for Muslim burials was six to 10 days, but this reduced the waiting list and helped families. Waiting to bury a loved one can be really tough and families shouldn’t need to chase people to lay their loved ones to rest.
I saw so many grieving families and many of their stories stayed with me. I saw a widowed mom-of-four who struggled to afford the funeral of her late husband; a student in Saudi Arabia who couldn’t get to his dad’s funeral in England due to COVID; a Muslim convert who had no one to help with his burial.
But it’s not just the dead I deal with and it’s not just burial support we offer. We try to help the living who find themselves in precarious and disadvantaged situations, too. Between November 2020 and June 2021, we were able to deliver 7,665 hot meals to those without access to food.
I’ve also been fortunate enough to forge wonderful friendships with some patients at the end of their lives. At Eden Care, we provide a weekly befriending session, and that person really does become a friend to me.
We also support that person by granting them a wish list of things they want to do. If it’s going to a place they’re fond of, we organize transportation. If there are relationship conflicts they want to resolve, we help mediate. Or they might want a gathering or party, which we can plan – for Muslim reverts (as we call converts), the request is usually for a Janazah, where we’ll perform all the Islamic rituals.
Covid changed the wish lists we could help with, of course. We couldn’t visit hospitals or arrange gatherings. So we offered telephone befriending instead and we opened that up to everybody, not just Muslims, because it was a national crisis and a global crisis, and we didn’t want people to be alone.
This whole situation has been both an ordeal and a lifeline, a way of living to honor the dead. And I think I’m getting stronger. I’ve been through so much grief: my mother’s death, Grenfell, friends and family I’ve lost, COVID victims.
I say to my children, “I’m Gandalf the White now.”
As told to Faima Bakar.
Abu Mumin is a founder of the charity 13 Rivers Trust, which runs the Muslim Burial Fund, Eden Care UK, Sylhet Aid and Rescue Orphans programs. He is also a proud Muslim and Bangladeshi dad.