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In Memoriam

In memory of

Ahmed Toufik Hammoude

1917 – 2004

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On the day Dad died, my mother Jean wanted to buy some shrubs for her garden, and at around midday they went to Golden Days, a large and popular garden center in the outskirts of Manchester. This is a great place to go shopping for garden supplies; it's in a pleasant setting out in the English countryside, with every conceivable thing one could want for a garden. There are thousands of plants and bushes in their extensive outdoor nursery; a person could spend hours wandering around among the many colours and varieties.

In recent years my father had experienced increasing difficulty in moving around; he could only walk quite slowly, and had reached the stage where even lifting himself out of a chair required some effort on his part. Because of this he went out much less than in the past, and spent most of his time at home.

For this reason my mother would normally have gone to the garden center on her own, but on this occasion Dad said he wanted to go too; rather than staying cooped up at home, he wanted to get out of the house for a few hours on this sunny Saturday afternoon.

So Mum and Dad went off to Golden Days. But after a little while Dad got tired, so Mum left him to rest at the garden center cafe. There is a little coffee shop right in the garden center, where they serve lunches and so on, so Mum sat him down there with a cup of tea and a piece of cake, at a table by the window where he could look out at the nursery outside, at all the plants, and the people walking around in the sunshine. A pleasant place to drink a final cup of tea; to take one's last look at Life.

While Dad sat and drank his tea, Mum walked around the nursery, trying to decide which two or three plants she would take home. After half an hour or so she went back to the cafe, and sat down at the table opposite Dad.

"There are so many to choose from! It's so hard to decide," she said. She looked at Dad, and said, "Are you all right here on your own?" He smiled and said, "You're always looking after me. Yes, I'm fine. Don't worry about me."

And then my father paused, and for a moment a quick, puzzled look came into his eyes. As my mother described it, it was "as if he heard something, something no one else could hear, and didn't quite know what it was." It's a look we all know, a familiar look, one we have seen many times on the faces of the living.

Then the life faded from Dad's eyes, and he slipped from his chair, and fell to the ground.

In my mother's mind, and in mine too, this is the moment at which my father died. But modern medicine has other ideas. The machinery of medicine was summoned, and for the next hour it would fight grimly to keep my father in this world. The ambulance arrived, and though his heart had stopped beating, its efficient personnel made it beat once more. They rushed him to the nearest hospital, and there they continued their struggle to keep him alive.

But they were unable to revive him. My father did not regain consciousness, and he died at about 3 pm in Wythenshawe Hospital, Manchester.

I arrived in Manchester the following Monday morning, and my mother and I spent that week arranging Dad's funeral. It was a difficult, stressful, confusing time, but we managed. We were fortunate to have the support and assistance of several of Dad's friends within the Arabic community, who helped us greatly with their kindness and guidance.

The funeral was held the following Friday. Prayers for my father were said at Burton Road Mosque, the mosque he commonly attended, following the usual Friday prayers and sermon. After the prayers we buried Dad at Alderley Edge Cemetery, as per his wishes.

We arranged a traditional Islamic funeral for Dad, but to avoid any language misunderstandings, and to ensure that the funeral would be welcoming to Muslims and non-Muslims alike, we used an English funeral director, but one who also had experience in arranging Islamic funerals, and was familiar with Islamic customs.

For this reason the funeral had characteristics of both the Islamic and the Anglo-Saxon cultures. Dad was made ready for the funeral and taken to the mosque by the English funeral directors, and during this time things were done with typical English formality—the funeral directors solemnly deferential in their grey pin-striped suits and ties; the coffin carried with slow and measured deliberation.

But at the doors of the mosque my father was delivered into Muslim hands, and a different culture took over; one much less reserved in its relationship to death.

There is a large Islamic population in Manchester, and the mosque was completely full, packed wall-to-wall with the faithful, there for their regular Friday prayers. There were Muslims from all over the Islamic world; from the Middle East, Africa, Pakistan, Bosnia; perhaps 500 men crowded into the mosque. At the conclusion of the public prayers a few left, but the great majority stayed behind to pray for my father, though he was a stranger to all but a few of them.

During the public prayers, Dad's coffin was placed in the rear of the mosque, behind the main congregation. Then at the conclusion of the public prayers the imam announced that the congregation would now say prayers for a brother Muslim, and at this time Dad's coffin was brought forward and placed at the front. It was brought forward spontaneously and without formality, by his friends of course, but also by whichever willing hands were close by. It was carried forward the way a group of men might move a piano; with so many hands available, no great ceremony is required. And so Dad made his way over the heads of the congregation, his coffin rising and dipping, rocking and tilting, bobbing like a small ship on a sea of hands.

Though this unsteady journey was a bit alarming to Western eyes, in the context of an Islamic funeral it was all quite appropriate—this is just the way things are done. Dad had seen Muslim funeral services like this many times before, and he was familiar and comfortable with the Muslim way of doing things. It seemed the right thing for Dad to be handled in this way, by his own faith, among his own friends, touched by many hands. It seemed proper for Dad's funeral to be conducted in this way—informal, ad hoc, one might even say disorganized. But egalitarian, and unself-conscious, and without any pretension at all.

And then several hundred men prayed for my father, murmuring in unison, filling up the air with their prayers. It was a lovely moment, and I think it would have made Dad very happy.

After the prayers Dad was once again borne aloft on a sea of willing hands, carried unsteadily out of the mosque, and delivered back into English pin-striped formality. It was as if Dad's journey underwent an abrupt change of key at the doors of the mosque—from major to minor on entering, then back to major on leaving. Now unwaveringly horizontal, Dad was ceremoniously placed into the black, gleaming hearse. And then the slow, stately procession out to the cemetery—Dad's last journey.

One of the most memorable things about the funeral was this great contrast between the Islamic and the English elements of the ceremony. It reflected Dad's life, which showed similar contrasts—a man from Syria, who lived his life in England, and took an English wife, and then to his surprise, found himself the father to an English son.

Following the prayers we took Dad to Alderley Edge Cemetery, where he had expressed a wish to be buried. It's a beautiful cemetery, very quiet and peaceful, some distance outside Manchester, out in the Cheshire countryside. There is a Muslim section in the cemetery, where the graves are all properly aligned so that the dead, with their heads turned towards their right shoulders, lie facing towards Mecca. The headstones in that section maintain their own characteristic alignment, skewed against the orderly regimentation of the majority. Several of Dad's friends are buried there, and so he now lies among those he knew well in life.

My father's funeral was just what a funeral should be: something that eases the hearts of the living. Sad, painful, and sorrowful; but still, the right way for us to say good-bye to him.

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Created by sa-20071
Last modified 2010-02-05 12:08 PM

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