Looking for my father

I STOOD in the middle of the Islamic section of the Campo da Boa Esperança cemetery in Brasilia last Friday and looked for my father’s grave. My cousin Yasser was visiting from Saudi Arabia and he wanted to pray for “Uncle Mohamed” as he put it.

Tomorrow, December 2, will be the one year anniversary of his passing. I still remember the day we buried my dad: It was raining like mad and there were small rivers of mud as we placed his cotton-wrapped body into a hole in the ground and workers sealed it off with a concrete slab on top.

But now a year later I couldn’t remember exactly where we had placed him. I walked around the other grave markers, beautiful pieces of dark granite slabs and engraved markers with the names of the deceased, their birth and death dates, and some with quotations from the Holy Qur’an. There were several unmarked graves, but I still could not figure out which one was my father’s. In my grief on the day he died and that we buried him, my mind had been a blank on noticing such things.

“That’s normal,” said Valdete, a Brazilian friend, when I tell her later on the phone that I couldn’t remember where we had placed my dad. “You were so upset with grief. It’s normal not to remember such details.”

The Islamic section of the Brasilia cemetery is fenced off from the rest of the cemetery and a large marble pillar with a golden crescent on the top stands at the entrance to the section next to a huge cement sign that says “Cemitério Islamico”. When I had stopped at the cemetery’s administration office at the entrance to ask them if they knew where my father was buried, an employee had handed me a map to the whole place and showed me how to reach the section where Muslims were buried. He was sorry he told me, but only the Islamic Center of Brasilia would be able to tell me where my dad was resting. Ironically, the map showed the “Israelites”, or Jews, as being buried just a short distance away from the Muslims, the bodies of Catholics separating the two.

Just like the Jews, Muslims are not supposed to put flowers on the graves of their loved ones. At the entrance to the cemetery I saw a woman selling a huge wreath of flowers, so I stopped, just out of curiosity, to ask her how much.

“One hundred and fifty reais,” she said, quoting an absurd price. “And I can write anything you want on it.” I politely declined.

The lack of a marker for my dad’s grave does not mean that my mother and I have forgotten him. Far from it. There are pictures of him all over our house, and little reminders that he was with us until just recently. Boxes of his books are in the spare bedroom of my little house, as are brand new pairs of cotton underwear still packaged that my dad used to like to buy in large quantities.

I had been reminding my mother over the past year that we should visit my dad at the cemetery and make sure his grave is okay.

“Don’t say ‘visit’,” my mom finally snapped at me one day in more of a weary tone than an angry one. “He’s gone to another place now and that’s not him in the cemetery.”

I’ve always been the more sentimental one of the family, so worrying if his grave were okay and planning a marker for him came naturally to me.

Not finding my father’s place in the cemetery spared me any tears this time, though I did feel a little tightness in my throat when I stood next to Yasser as he prayed, standing up, for my dad, reciting the Al-Fatiha verse from the Qur’an. I drew comfort from the fact that a blood relative came all the way from Saudi Arabia and was praying for my departed father and his soul.

When my father had died we had washed his body at the Islamic Center and then prayed over his body at the mosque. But there were no relatives there except for myself and my mom. I would have felt much more comfort if all of his relatives had been there to pray and grieve with me.

I now have to find out exactly where he is buried and have a nice granite cover and marker made up for him. That’s the least I can do for his memory.

‘Departures’: Death Japanese-style

Tsutomu Yamazaki and Masahiro Motoki prepare a body for a
funeral in a scene from Departures.

Warning: Contains spoilers!

WATCHING Departures on Saturday night with two friends at the CasaPark movie theater in Brasilia, I learned how much the Japanese honor their dead.

Winner of this year’s Oscar for Best Foreign Film, I had forgotten that fact when I chose the movie for us to watch. I had read positive snippets about it online and the main actor, Masahiro Motoki, was more than handsome to enjoy watching for more than two hours.

Daigo Kobayashi (Motoki) is a violencello player in a Tokyo orchestra and is soon out of a job when the owner decides to dissolve the orchestra. Faced with unemployment, Daigo returns to his hometown with his relentlessly chirpy wife Mika (Ryoko Hirosue). She can never say ‘no’ to her husband, and soon becomes a Japanese version of a Stepford Wife. We wanted to wring her neck, she was so annoyingly positive.

Answering a classified ad entitled ‘Departures’ in a newspaper, Daigo thinks he is applying for a job at a travel agency, when in fact he finds out it is a funeral agency that prepares the bodies of the deceased to enter the after life.

The funeral agency is headed by a wonderfully grumpy Ikue Sasaki (Tsutomu Yamazaki), who soon teaches Daigo the fine art of cleaning and preparing a body for a funeral.

Daigo, ashamed of doing a job that is looked down upon in Japan, does not tell his wife the details of his new job, which she later finds out when she discovers an instructional video on body preparation starring her husband. This is when she finally becomes nasty and selfish, giving her husband an ultimatum: either leave his “disgusting” job or she will leave. He refuses, so she flounces off to stay with her parents.

Since my own father just died last December, I found the movie very moving, especially the scenes where Daigo is shown lovingly washing the body of his own father. It reminded me of how I too helped wash my dad’s body before his burial.

I must admit that I cried several times during the film, as well as half of the audience from the sniffling sound of wet noses that I heard.

Departures is an excellent movie, and I highly recommend that you go see it if you haven’t yet.

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