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To date, more than 17,000 people worldwide have died from the coronavirus. But COVID-19 is taking more than these lives. My aunt and cousins had to modify the way they said goodbye. They could not be at my uncle’s bedside, holding his hand. And when he died, they had to mourn alone. Funeral rites for many Iranians are the second-most-important event in a life, after weddings. The process is intricate and intimate, full of melancholy. His family could not perform these rituals. On top of everything else, the coronavirus stole their ability to properly grieve.
We called my uncle “Haji Ahmad.” To be precise, he was my aunt’s husband, a man she’d married in her home village more than 60 years ago. He was tall, with broad shoulders, and an aggressively chiseled jaw. His look was stern, like that of a drill sergeant, lips tightened, perfect posture. But his outward appearance was just an illusion, the emotional chain mail of a man who spent much of his life scraping together a living for his family in the wolves’ den that is central Tehran. This man supported four children who grew to receive bachelor’s and master’s degrees in chemistry, computer science, and engineering.
Behind the veneer was a kind, gentle person with a mastery of the art of Iranian manners, or tarof. From the time I was a teenager, visiting Iran from the U.S. in the summers, he welcomed me into his home as if I were his own child. He helped his wife, my aunt, in the kitchen. He placed food in front of me and waited until I ate, a beautiful, almost cartoonish display of respect.
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The day my uncle passed away, his son—my cousin—rushed to the hospital. He had to look at his father’s lifeless body through a window. “I couldn’t even hold him,” he said. “I watched them cart him away like a stranger.” The doctors told him they were still waiting for the COVID-19 test to come back but that it would very likely be positive, so they had to take precautions. The hospital staff allowed no contact from the family. And my uncle’s burial, they said, would be administered by the local government. It was protocol.
Years ago, another uncle of mine passed away while I was in Iran. My family asked me to help with the burial rites. I accompanied my cousins to wash my uncle’s body, a symbolic ritual to ensure he entered the afterlife cleansed and pure. His body lay on a stainless-steel table as we each took turns washing him. I remember being shocked by how visceral it all felt. There was no barrier between us and the ugliness of death. A part of me, if I’m being honest, saw it as a backwards custom, stuck in history. Yet I couldn’t help but also feel the sense of catharsis, the beauty of seeing a loved one off in such an intimate fashion. It was like being a part of his transition, physically connected until his shrouded body was laid into the earth. I understood why it was so important, why the family needed it.