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'Our duty to our martyrs': Volunteers prepare 50 Christchurch victims for their last rites

'Our duty to our martyrs': Volunteers prepare 50 Christchurch victims for their last rites

Mourners carry a body at Memorial Park Cemetery in Christchurch, New Zealand, Friday, Mar 22, 2019. (Photo: AP/Mark Baker)

CHRISTCHURCH: For three days and nights the volunteers toiled, diligently washing the bodies of those murdered by a white supremacist in the Christchurch mosque massacres, finally embracing when the last victim was wrapped in a shroud.

In the aftermath of the slayings of 50 Muslims one week ago, a team of specialists in Islamic funeral rites rushed to the terrorised city on New Zealand's South Island to perform a grim but vital task.

READ: New Zealand prays, falls silent, a week after mosque massacres

READ: All 50 victims of Christchurch attack identified: Police

Muslim dead must be washed before burial in a ritually complex ceremony that the city's tight-knit Muslim community usually performed at the Al Noor mosque.

Muslim men pray in a park near the Al Noor mosque, shortly after a two minutes silence held in memory of the victims of last Friday's shooting. (Photo: AFP/Anthony Wallace)

But the mosque, the first of two Muslim houses of worship struck in the Mar 15 attacks by Australian national Brenton Tarrant, remains a closed-up crime scene. Christchurch Muslims suddenly had 50 loved ones to prepare for burial.

One of those who took part described to AFP the daunting and heartbreaking task in a funeral home on the outskirts of the city.

"We treated each body like it was family, as if I was washing my own father or brother," explained Mo, who travelled from Brisbane in Australia as soon as he heard the massacre had taken place.

SPECIALIST EXPERIENCE

A 27-year-old urban planner, Mo asked AFP not to use his surname as he wanted to avoid publicity.

But he agreed to talk about the work performed by a core team of around 10 exhausted volunteers and three doctors, who were aided at times by family members.

Islam prescribes that bodies be buried quickly, ideally within 24 hours as no preservatives are allowed in the process.

READ: 'One of the safest countries': Some fear and trauma, but Malaysians in Christchurch aren't going anywhere

READ: Christchurch in shock: A city tries to come to terms with brutal terrorist attack

Flowers are placed around portraits at the home of Haji Mohammed Daoud Nabi, 71, the first victim of the Al Noor mosque shooting who was shot dead after welcoming the gunman into the building with the words "Hello brother". (Photo: AFP/Anthony Wallace)

Several of the volunteers had specialist experience preparing the dead for Islamic burial, Mo said.

But due to the sheer scale of the massacre and the criminal investigation that followed, it took between four to five days for most bodies to be released, adding to the pressure on the team to prepare bodies as speedily as possible.

Mo said the process was the same for all - the 47 male victims were prepared by men and the three female bodies were bathed by women.

Mourners prepare to bury one of the victims of the Christchurch shootings on Friday, a week after a gunman shot dead 50 worshippers. (Photo: AFP/Marty Melville)

The first job was to address the often horrific gunshot wounds, a task primarily carried out by the local medics.

"The doctors who helped make the bodies look more presentable, they were amazing," Mo said.

The parts of the body that Muslims wash in their ablutions before attending prayer -- feet, hands, and face -- were then cleansed with a wet cloth so that the deceased can make their way to heaven in a state of purity.

The bodies were then washed three times, first with lukewarm water, then with water infused with extracts from a tree considered by Muslims to be blessed, and lastly with camphor-scented water. The right side is bathed first, followed by the left.

STATE OF GRACE

Perfume was then applied and in a final ceremony the bodies were wrapped in simple white shrouds to be taken for burial.

Mo's team also prepared a 48th body not directly connected to the shooting - a Muslim volunteer who came to Christchurch to help the local community but who died in a car crash.

Mourners embrace after a two minute silence for the victims of the Christchurch attack, one of whom welcomed the man who was to open fire with the words "Hello brother" as he approached the Al Noor mosque. (Photo: AFP/Anthony Wallace)

"We've barely slept the last three nights. We started washing the bodies at 8am and would finish each day at around 2am, although the first day was a little less busy because there were only six bodies released," Mo said.

The last victim was finally prepared at 2am on Friday morning, a week after the slayings.

"It was so emotional," he recalled. "The volunteers cried and hugged each other. It was a joyous moment because we knew we had done our duty to our martyrs."

"After we finished I got about an hour of sleep and it was about the best hour's sleep I've ever had," he said.

Source: AFP/ad

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