"There's no Muslim family in Orange County or the Inland Empire who hasn't directly benefited from Abu Ahmad's help," said Hussam Ayloush, referring to Alshilleh with an Arabic honorific meaning "father of Ahmad." The executive director of the Council on American-Islamic Relations' Los Angeles office estimates he has seen hundreds of funerals, "and Abu Ahmad was the person helping in the overwhelming majority of them."
Including those of all his relatives.
Alshilleh came to his vocation by necessity. When he was a teenager, his father died suddenly, and no one wanted to prepare his body. So Alshilleh, as the oldest son of Palestinian refugees in Jordan, took it upon himself to do the task. He asked elders and imams and anyone who might know something, anything.
"After that," said his son Mohammad, "Baba promised God he would do it for others forever."
He continued his charity in the United States — first in New York City, and then Riverside, where he settled in 1993 and promptly volunteered at mortuaries in the Inland Empire. Muslim migration to Southern California was rising, and the funeral industry needed people like Alshilleh. The more bodies he washed, the better and more knowledgeable he became, until he was widely acknowledged as the best of the best.
On this day, the last two rows of graves that the Shilleh siblings passed were little more than dozens of mounds of dirt. Framed papers topped each to denote the departed. So many Muslims in the region have died of COVID-19 these last couple of months that there's simply not enough time right now to fully finish new tombs.
One of those victims was Alshilleh. His grave is one plot over from the last person he buried.
"His good deeds will always protect his family," said Isa Farrah, who worked alongside Alshilleh at his father's Olive Tree Mortuary in Stanton since he was a teenager. He greeted the Shilleh siblings and offered his condolences anew. The 30-year-old looked around. "Look at how many people benefited from him. This is what he lived and died for."
Farrah then paraphrased the Quranic verse that Muslims recite at every burial:
From the earth, we were created.