New York, US – Ahmet Kargi, 40, rolls up his sleeves, revealing a tattoo on his right arm – a white crescent and star inside a red shield.
“It’s the Turkish flag,” he says. “Makes me feel closer to my roots.”
Keep readinglist of 4 items
His keffiyeh blows in the wind as he rides his 2003 Harley Davidson through the quiet streets of Fort Greene, Brooklyn, passing brownstones, Gothic churches and Mexican restaurants.
He stops at the corner of Vanderbilt and DeKalb Avenue, and enters an inconspicuous, burgundy and beige three-storey building. It is the Piro Funeral Home, a neighbourhood fixture since the early 1900s.
Back then it was where the bodies of Italian immigrants who worked in the Navy Yard were prepared before being shipped by boat to Italy for burial. Today, it might be one of a kind: a multireligious funeral home with separate sections for Jews, Christians and Muslims.
Kargi is the president of the Muslim section, called Islamic Funeral Services.
“I never saw myself doing this,” he says. “But things fell into place at a certain point in my life and it just made sense.”
Cleansing the body
Today, Kargi is at the funeral home, handling the final rites of a 48-year-old Iranian man. Ali died in his sleep, and his body has just been released from the medical examiner’s office. His Russian wife, Svetlana, tells Kargi that her husband had been stressed because he had recently been laid off from his job and wasn’t able to send as much money back home as he would have liked.
Svetlana is an Orthodox Christian but wants to ensure that all rituals are performed in accordance with her husband’s Muslim faith.
In Islam, the dead should be buried as soon as possible. The body is first cleansed in lukewarm water, and then wrapped in several layers of plain cotton sheets. Soon after, there is a congregational prayer service called the Janazah, during which mourners pray for the deceased’s soul and ask God to pardon them for their sins. Then the body is buried.
Kargi handles the first part of the process, cleansing Ali’s body. He moves quicker than usual, concerned because it has already been two days since Ali died. The medical examiner had to come in to conduct an autopsy because Ali was in his 40s and seemingly in good health. The burial will be further delayed because Ali’s family plans to fly his body back to Iran, which will take a few days. Svetlana can’t afford to send the body overseas, so Ali’s family in Tehran are making the arrangements.
Shipping bodies overseas is a smooth process for the most part. Countries such as Egypt and Morocco have been known to step in and cover the funeral and shipping costs for their citizens in the US.
In Ali’s case, however, it will be tougher than usual. The Iranian embassy in Washington DC has been closed since the US and Iran severed relations in 1979, and any official work is processed through the Interests Section of the Islamic Republic of Iran in the United States, located inside the Pakistan embassy. Kargi, well versed with the procedures of shipping bodies internationally, will need to make a few additional calls from his funeral home to ensure that Ali’s body gets back to Tehran safely.
From the army to the funeral house
Kargi’s family came to the US from Turkey in 1974. He was 26 when, in 2001, his father, Hussein, died, leaving him and his mother to fend for themselves. He had grown up poor, mopping buildings and helping his father to paint empty apartments in south Brooklyn for $100 a day. On the day of his father’s funeral, Kargi witnessed something that was a rarity in his life until that point.
“The imam, Erhan Yildirin, treated me and my mother with such respect,” he recalls. “He took care of my father’s final rites and rituals as if he were his own father.”
That respect moved Kargi, whose easy smile hides a history of teen angst and soul-searching. At 17, he dropped out of high school and met a group of New York Muslims who were recruiting men to fight in the 1992 Bosnian War. He was turned away because he was too young. So he joined the US army instead. But that ended quickly. He faced discrimination, he says, and after asking to leave, was given an entry-level discharge.
“After my father’s funeral, I began helping Yildirin on and off,” he explains.
Yildirin founded Islamic Funeral Services in 2001.
“My father’s death changed my outlook on life like night and day,” Kargi reflects. “I was the wildest child you could imagine, living life like there were no consequences. But then I realised I would die one day and I started contemplating my own mortality. Helping Yildirin at the funeral home meant facing death every day, and it gave me a unique perspective on reality.”
Yildirin and Kargi became close, and the younger man’s responsibilities gradually increased. He joined Islamic Funeral Services full-time in 2005.
|Kargi says he was discriminated against in the army ‘for being a Muslim’. After serving for six months in 1992, he asked to leave and was given an entry-level discharge [Courtesy of Ahmet Kargi]|
The first time
On a winter morning in 2010, when Yildirin needed the day off, Kargi found himself in charge of completing the Muslim funeral formalities for a Turkish man.
“I remember coming in before dawn, and no one was here, no one to keep me company. It was a little nerve-racking,” he recalls.
Kargi began with the cleansing ritual.
“I was warming up the water and I was really nervous. Even though I had done it many times before with Erhan, I had never done it by myself,” he says.
Kargi had his back to the body, which was lying flat on a custom-made table with the arms resting upon the chest. Islamic law states that the arms should be by the sides.
“I was standing there for maybe 20 minutes, making sure the water temperature was just right,” he recalls. “Suddenly, I felt a small nudge on my back, as if someone touched me.
“I dumped the water, slipped on it, got back up, started running towards the door, but I’m looking at the body and not at the door so I slam into the doorframe. I bump my head and then run the other way. I came out of the building; it is pitch dark and cold outside. I have no jacket on and I’m shaking. It took me a while to bring myself to get back inside.”
Kargi stared at the body in the washroom and gradually explained the incident to himself through basic science: The temperature in the room rose because of the water, loosening the resting arms, and one of them briefly touched Kargi as it slipped off to the side.
‘We can’t afford to die here’
Over time, he grew comfortable with the job, and estimates that he has now washed about 500 bodies. The ritual cleansing is the easy part, he says.
“Many Muslims who come here to bury their loved ones often blur the lines between religion and culture, and I am caught in the middle – trying to respect their wishes and still ensure that I am not doing anything that is forbidden in Islam.”
Kargi explains the importance of simple funerals in Islam – no elaborate services or extravagant caskets. But that is at odds with how the funeral business works in the US, where traditional funerals can cost from $6,000 to well over $50,000.
“Islamic funerals are for the dead,” he says. “In other religions, funerals often include prolonged ceremonies. I would say they are mostly to help those left behind rid themselves of their guilt, to say one last goodbye and to maybe exhibit one last form of appreciation. But at that point it’s too late. In Islam, everything done during a funeral is for the person who died, to ensure he has a peaceful transition to his final resting place.”
But finding an earthly resting place can be a challenge for New York’s Muslims. There are thought to be between 600,000 and one million Muslims in New York City, but there is no exclusive cemetery for them to bury their dead.
“We often use cemeteries in New Jersey, like the Jersey State Memorial Park Cemetery in Millstone, which is where my father is buried. There are also smaller Muslim sections at cemeteries in Long Island, and in parts of the city. But they can cost anywhere from $6,000 to $8,000, and I have seen graves go up to $14,000 inside the city. That is considered a wasteful expenditure in Islam, and so we have to resort to the most affordable options available,” Kargi explains.
“Death is an inevitable reality. It shouldn’t be so complicated for someone to bury the deceased, it shouldn’t be so expensive, it shouldn’t be such a headache or a hassle,” says Nooruddean Abu Ibrahim, a 28-year-old Palestinian American who has been doing Islamic funeral work in New York for more than a decade.
“Muslims here have a common saying: ‘We can’t afford to die here.’
“The Muslim community in New York needs to come together so we can have our own cemetery,” he says.
“Since we are dependent on other cemeteries, it usually costs us a lot. If we have our own cemetery, we could make sure people from our faith don’t have to spend so much money to bury their dead.”
In order to support Muslims who cannot afford to pay hefty funeral expenses, Ibrahim started a nonprofit organisation called the Janazah Project. It raises money from the Muslim community to cover funeral costs for needy families on a case-by-case basis.
Over the years, Ibrahim says more people have reached out to the Janazah Project for support. Kargi’s business at Islamic Funeral Services has grown as well – from about 60 funerals a year to an average of 200.
New York Muslims are often segregated based on nationality. But those from different countries and cultures are united by their shared funeral rites. Ibrahim and Kargi’s clients have been African American, Bosnian, Albanian, Uzbek, Chinese, Turkish, Egyptian, Pakistani and Bangladeshi, among others.
‘Follow your passions’
Soon after making arrangements with Iranian officials for Ali’s body to be sent to Tehran, Kargi shrouds it. With the help of a few others, he carefully places it inside a simple wooden coffin, with the word “head” carved in Arabic to indicate how to position the body.
Svetlana asks to see Ali’s face one last time, and holds back her tears as his body is whisked away for shipment.
“She is remarkable,” Kargi says. “So concerned about respecting her husband’s religion and family.”
Svetlana gives Kargi a thank-you card. He reminds himself to take a look at it later.
“I typically work 9 to 5, but the nature of this job is such that I can’t really plan my hours,” Kargi says.
His predecessor, Yildirim, who founded Islamic Funeral Services as an independent funeral home housed inside Piro Funeral Home, says: “It can get very overwhelming. The schedule, the daily routine that comes with being in this business, it was getting to be too much for me.”
Yildirim is now the city’s community coordinator between NYPD police officers and the Muslim community. Among the projects that Yildirim’s office is working on is a movie about Islam, which will be included in the police academy’s core curriculum.
“Erhan felt he needed to get away from this business, but I’m not there yet,” Kargi says. “I can’t say if and when I ever will be.”
He shuts the back door of the van into which he has just placed Ali’s casket. As the driver pulls out of the garage, Kargi arranges a few empty caskets that are lined up against the garage wall.
“Death is a very humbling, natural part of life, that’s what I’ve learned,” he says, taking a deep breath. “I have learned to embrace it, and I don’t fight it. I know I came with nothing to this earth, and I know I will go back with nothing. Trivial things really don’t matter. We humans make everything so complicated.”
He clears his desk, grabs his keys and, as the sun begins to set, walks slowly towards his Harley.
“It’s been a long day but I’m looking forward to the rest of the evening,” he says, his face lighting up as he speaks of his wife, Noor, and their two-year-old daughter, Ayesha.
“Life is all about sharing quality time with your friends and family,” he says. “And about following your passion …. I am recording my own album. I can’t wait to play some guitar back home, and make some good music.”
‘Heritage and religion’
At home, Kargi finally gets to open Svetlana’s thank-you card. There is $300 inside, a tip much higher than he is used to.
“I thought to myself, she is working two jobs and has a 12-year-old child. This is way too much. I was so moved I just started crying because I couldn’t believe what she did,” he says.
“I called her and offered to give her back the money. I told her that a thank-you is enough. But she said to me, ‘My child is 12 and I have nobody to introduce him to his heritage and religion. Hopefully down the line maybe you could mentor him or he could call you if he has questions … or maybe you could come for coffee and meet him, be like an older brother to him.’
“Her outlook at such a difficult time was really touching. Moments like these really make what I do worthwhile.”