Ever since I flew to Pakistan by myself without telling my family and married a man I’d never met, the prevailing question has been “Could you be an embalmer in Pakistan?”
Probably not. Burials in Muslim countries are nothing like the kind of services I typically arrange here. Embalming and viewing almost never happen in a Muslim country, and the body is buried usually within hours of death, without any sort of registration. There are professionals who embalm bodies for international flights; medical instruction; or in a rare instance of a high-profile homicide where a body may need to be held for a long time. But the embalming procedures in countries where viewing is rarely done are – to put it nicely – extremely crude and ineffective.
Most American funeral directors who receive bodies from Mexico know what I mean. I got one that had maggots, as well as another who was literally submerged in formaldehyde and wrapped in a submerged quilt. The fumes were so strong on that case that I couldn’t even get within a few feet of him.
In rural areas, all deaths are handled by the family. In my husband’s village of 2000 people, he is the prayer caller and in charge of announcing deaths from the mosque loudspeaker. The entire village usually prays over the dead person, whether they knew them or not. The body is washed, shrouded, and buried. A middle-class family typically has their own cemetery, while a poor family will bury the body wherever they can, even just on a roadside. Martyrs are buried outside a mosque.
There is none of what an American funeral director takes as a given. No time for the family to have a moment alone with the body, no personalized memorial service, no dressing the person or placing items with them, not even the assurance that “your grief is normal” because Islamic regulations only allow a person to outwardly grieve for three days (except when a wife loses a husband; her mourning period is 4 months and 10 days).
My husband had a sister who died in an accident when she was a year old. She was buried immediately, even though her father was off working in another town. He didn’t get to see her. He didn’t need to. He just got a call at work one day telling him his daughter died and had been buried. Same with a brother of his who died in his sleep as an adult. He was just found dead, and then was buried. No autopsy, no call to a doctor.
So, it’s highly unlikely that I could be a funeral director or embalmer in Pakistan, since it’s rare that a family would ever want their loved one’s body handed to a stranger. Pakistan does have some Hindu and Christian populations, and they are permitted to practice certain funeral rites that are not allowed in Islam, even cremation. My only chance at any sort of work would be to serve these populations.
But working in Pakistan isn’t as simple as going out and applying for a job. Women are allowed to work, but the labor laws that Americans are used to won’t be present. Job descriptions openly say that a female applicant must be under 35, unmarried, and light-skinned. It’s frowned upon for a married woman to work and is only accepted in cases of severe financial distress or if she is in medicine. A lot of American Muslim women feel the need to give me food boxes, I mean actual food-bank food like tuna and potatoes and oats that probably should be left for the starving people…and I realized…they think I’m the starving people. Because I work. Why else would I work?
I get asked all the time if Pakistan is “nice,” but I also get asked if Seattle is nice or if living in Portland was nicer. I don’t go anywhere or do anything so where I live doesn’t matter. I want to do interesting work stuff and live in a quiet place, and I had that both in Seattle and Portland. I think the kind of people who have opinions about places they’ve visited are the same kind who find joy in sunsets and trees and things like that. Going to another place will always be interesting, and it’s a break from work and other responsibilities, and I’m in the company of a large family who will bustle about trying to make things comfortable for me. So I will probably have a nice time there, but Pakistan is not a nice place. (My experiences are quite limited in scope; if I make a statement about Pakistan, the culture, or Islam that sounds different than what you have heard somewhere else, I am not an authority and I might be wrong or quoting a source that has later been disproven.)
No one wants to live there, it’s overcrowded, most families have 5+ children, the weather can kill you, everyone is poor, child labor is the norm, governments are corrupt and Muslims kill other Muslims for doing Islam wrong. It’s not a nice place.
My father-in-law has a maid who is ten years old. I was completely unaware of her existence until, at the wedding party, the power went out. I was the focal point, sitting upright even more severely than I usually do, because of the wide heavy gold neckpiece I was wearing. A small, dark girl appeared with a large frond of some kind and began fanning me. I had no idea those kinds of servants really existed for regular people.
I asked Dawood if she was being paid. She was. I asked him if she went to school. She did not. She would frequently materialize during my stay with clean laundry, and got up to make breakfast for everyone. Servants’ quarters are in a completely separate area, one I haven’t seen. I have only seen one wing of this place. Nearly everyone here lives in a large, multi-family structure that is surrounded by a high stone wall so it can’t be seen from the street. Men and women, guests and servants, do not see certain areas of the home.
Most places I’ve seen in Pakistan have no discernible traffic laws. You can do a U-turn or stop in the middle of the street whenever you feel like it. Getting sideswiped is a daily occurrence. Once, my husband instructed the cab driver to stop in the middle of a mountain pass so I could get out of the car and feed the wild monkeys. Not only did the driver stop, he shut off the meter as well. I fed the monkeys and got a lot of pics while other drivers just went around me. I wouldn’t say I am a bad driver, but I am very conservative and not at all aggressive, even when it might be good to be so. I rarely go above 60 and tend to get passed by everyone, so I can’t imagine getting into a car in Pakistan and trying to navigate any road. Many women struggle with parking and reversing, and I sure don’t want to practice in a place where right-of-way is determined by whim.
Each Islamic service I arrange here is different, but in Islam it is a sin for a woman to visit a cemetery [due to reasons like the possible accidental exposure of her body as she is assisting with the burial, or the time she is taking away from her family and home]. Here in the Seattle area I see women at Islamic services about half the time, and the men always seem confused by this.
How sad to think my mother-in-law has never visited the graves of two of her children.
There was an infant death recently among my inlaws; a nineteen-year-old girl had lost her second baby. She didn’t go to the burial. This is probably the most important reason I could not serve grieving families in Pakistan – I couldn’t tell a mother not to be as involved as she possibly can with her child’s burial.
Of course, things in our society will seem odd elsewhere. Pakistanis can’t understand why some people who die at home in America aren’t discovered for days or weeks, or why we put our parents in nursing homes, or why we inject dead people with toxic chemicals and put makeup and shoes on them. I mentioned to someone there that I couldn’t imagine getting over a child’s death in three days, and she said she couldn’t imagine grieving openly for several years. We each think the other one is doing it wrong.
There was a yearlong period when I was convinced I would move to Pakistan, because I saw no other option. It was around the time of my back surgery when I was still very sore and thought I might not be able to continue in this job. I was struggling with average-sized bodies and hadn’t yet built a solid pool of clients that would ensure continued earnings. I thought if I could no longer do physically difficult work, I would have no other means of support. Then I began to look forward to it – every time I had a difficult removal I would remind myself I always had the option of being a housewife and reading at home all day and playing with the chickens.
Until one day when I was sent on a removal with my own equipment and loaded up a 280 lb body with no trouble. I didn’t understand how it happened. I had been working fairly steadily for a particular funeral home who wanted me to use their equipment, and I had a solid “under 200 lbs” rule. I am so acclimated to using my stuff that it’s a disorienting sensory experience for me to use someone else’s stuff. This funeral home used a different brand and different type of gurney, and it was hard for me to adapt to. Now that I use exclusively my own car and my own gurneys, I’m back to lifting heavy people.
And I realized I didn’t have to move to the opposite side of the world. And I no longer wanted to.
I had rambled on for three additional pages about various reasons why a set-in-my-ways person who likes to work and make money would probably not want to move to a highly religious part of rural Pakistan that is informally governed by a caste system, but I have that saved for another time. One very good reason, though, is that it’s very easy to get away with murder.
In Pakistan, and in other countries with similar laws, you won’t serve time or be executed for a murder if the victim’s family forgives you. And they will probably forgive you.
When my father-in-law’s car was [shockingly] sideswiped and ended up totaled, his only option was to pay for the damages himself. Car insurance, taken for granted in America, is not a thing there. Insurance is haram. And I realized that’s one thing I do like about car insurance; the comfort that someone can’t run me off the road just because they don’t like me, at least not without someone having to pay something. In Pakistan, you are expected to forgive those who have wronged you. I like being able to say that getting my car fixed is better than forgiving people.
Forgiveness is of the utmost importance in very religious areas. Everyone aims to gather rewards for the afterlife, not for this life. I’m still thinking how I want my car fixed, and they’re knowing they have more favor from God because they forgave the other driver.
“We ordained for them in the Torah, ‘A life for a life, an eye for an eye, a nose for a nose, an ear for an ear, a tooth for a tooth – and for wounds equal retaliation.’ But whoever waives it charitably, it will be atonement for them…” [Quran 5:45]
This year in Dawood’s village, two women were killed in a robbery. The murderers spent maybe two months in jail, and then were forgiven by the victims’ families. And after the forgiveness, there is no supervised parole or adjustment to life as a convicted felon. You are simply released.
Forgiveness is often made official by the family’s acceptance of blood money, which is meant to make up for the loss of the deceased person’s income or services. I can see how a poor family might be pressured into verbally forgiving a murderer for a sum of money. Something like $500 can go extremely far in Pakistan, being enough to pay for even major surgery. I think most people would be willing to pay a lot more than $500 to get away with murder.
And, when people are given the authority to forgive a murderer and to allow that murderer back into society, over time this can result in the twisted belief that you also have the authority to murder.
Dawood casually mentioned attending a funeral, as a child, for a man who was killed by his family for talking alone with a woman. The woman was also killed, by her family. No one was arrested because, in Dawood’s words, “the two families worked it out among themselves.” Murder is considered a matter of private dispute rather than a crime. Your family can just kind of take a vote on killing you, and then immediately bury you.
Of course, it’s easy to get murdered in America too, but at least someone would likely notice and call the police or something, even if your family wanted to get rid of you.
One of Dawood’s brothers works in the jail and I have begged to see the place so many times, or to spend a night in a cell just so I can cross off that bucket list item, but I think now I believe them when they say I wouldn’t want to see.
To summarize: I wouldn’t be able to be an embalmer in Pakistan and there would also be numerous human rights violations that I’d have to accept as the norm.
An honor killing OF A MAN. This is a thing!
I’ve been reading your blog off and on for the last few years, and am commenting for the first time to let you know how interesting and matter of fact I find your writing style and subject matter. Thank you for sharing your thoughts and perspectives.