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He made sure the bodies of the Muslim dead faced Mecca. COVID-19 claimed his life

Gustavo Arellano, Los Angeles Times on

Published in Religious News

LOS ANGELES – Mahmoud and Rayah Shilleh walked silently across the Islamic Garden at Westminster Memorial Park toward the six-day-old grave of their father, Hashem Ahmad Alshilleh.

They passed row after row of identical tombs — plots ringed by concrete curbs and covered in white stones, with raised headstones that serve as the resting place for over 1,500 Muslims.

"This is all my father's legacy," said Mahmoud, a 25-year-old Corona Police Department officer, as he waited for his siblings to arrive. "It's just humbling."

For over 30 years, Alshilleh helped to bury a generation of Southern Californian Muslims. The Riverside resident washed and shrouded the corpses of men per Islamic customs and drove the bodies of men and women to cemeteries from Rosamond to Victorville, San Diego to Orange County.

The slight but strong truck driver stayed with each body until it was lowered into the ground. He would then climb down to ensure the deceased lay on his or her right side, facing toward Mecca, to await the Day of Resurrection. Afterward, Alshilleh emerged to deal with the living. He broke up arguments, offered gravesite prayers, did whatever grieving families asked of him.

He never charged for his services, relying only on donations. In many cases, he'd pool those funds to pay for the funerals of strangers, Muslims and not.

 

His five children — two police officers, two construction contractors and a nurse — knew their father was an important part of the local Muslim community. But it wasn't until Alshilleh passed away Jan. 8 at 75 that they realized the magnitude of the man.

"We knew he was a great guy, but talking to people, that's how we found out he was a legend," said his oldest son, 33-year-old Ahmad.

"Baba stayed quiet about who he was," said Ahmad's twin sister, Ayah Shilleh-Velazquez. "We knew what he did, but he just didn't boast about it."

"I received over 300 calls from around the world when my dad died," added Mahmoud. "The messages were all the same. 'He buried my mother-in-law. He buried my son. He buried my father, my friend.'"

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