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

To the earth, we shall return.

From the earth, we shall rise again.

He said it as everyone jostled for space next to a fence that temporarily abutted Alshilleh's grave. Next to it, three freshly dug burial plots awaited coffins for later that day.

Goulade Farrah, owner of Olive Tree Mortuary and funeral director for the Islamic Society of Orange County, met Alshilleh 16 years ago. The two became colleagues and fast friends.

"Abu Ahmad was one of those God-sent people," Farrah said. "I thought I knew what I was doing, but seeing this guy — he was a university."

Farrah recalled multiple times when family members of the dead would complain to him that Alshilleh wasn't honoring the specific funeral customs of their home countries. "So you'd hear them doing a phone call to someone who they thought knew better," Farrah said, awe in his voice, "and they'd tell the caller, 'No, [Alshilleh] is doing it right. Leave him alone.'"


Alshilleh eventually left his truck-driving job to prepare bodies full time as demand grew. He taught his sons the basics: Start the ritual bath by washing the right hand three times. Wrap the body in three simple white cloths. Wear personal protective equipment at all times. Be mindful of how to place arms — Sunnis want corpses with their arms crossed over the midsection, while Shiites prefer them on the side.

"He would always tell me, 'Don't ever fear death, son,'" said Mahmoud, who apprenticed under him for two years, "'because it's all going to be us one day.'"

His children tried to slow down their father as the years passed, but Alshilleh always waved them off. "Baba would say it wasn't work for him," said Rayah, a Los Angeles police officer. "That it was a blessing."

But they saw a change in him as the coronavirus swept through Southern California. He could no longer enter burial plots to position bodies toward Mecca. He couldn't even bathe them with water anymore, instead relying on a different type of purification called tayammum which involved dirt rubbed over the deceased — but now, it had to be done over the body bag.


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