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An undertaker’s view of London’s coronavirus outbreak

LONDON — Kafil Ahmed is a front-line caregiver whose duties begin when nurses and doctors can do no more. His work is essential at all times, but especially during a pandemic, when the greatest caution and kindness are necessary — yet he’s not among the first celebrated in national rounds of applause.

Ahmed is an undertaker. He runs Al-Birr Islamic Trust Funeral Service out of the back of the Greenwich Islamic Center, a prominent mosque in southeast London. Even as someone accustomed to seeing death up close, he has witnessed things during the novel coronavirus outbreak that he never could have imagined.

On a run to Queen Elizabeth Hospital, he was surprised to find a row of refrigerated trucks parked at the back exit. The scene inside the hospital was even more unsettling.

“There were dead bodies everywhere: in the corridors and passageways, in the chillers,” he said, recalling the rows of the recently deceased, all in white zippered bags. “It was very tough, very difficult.”

In normal times, Ahmed and others who volunteer at the funeral service, a charity operation, would prepare and bury three or four bodies a month. During the peak of the coronavirus deaths in London last month, Ahmed brought six to his mortuary on a single day. The pace has slowed since then. “I’ve gone three, now four days without a burial,” Ahmed said. But it’s still far from normal.

Islam, he noted, permits a departure from certain burial practices in times of calamity, such as natural disaster and plague.

Traditionally, a body is washed; wrapped in simple linens; prayed over; and buried quickly, usually within a day. Often, before the pandemic, relatives and friends would assist in preparing the body.

But now, Ahmed and his volunteers don’t unzip the body bags, except to check the wrist bracelet to make sure they are picking up the right person.

They no longer wash the dead. Instead, they sprinkle clean sand over the body bag and drape a shroud over it before placing the deceased in a coffin.

Only five family members are allowed at the gravesite, standing six feet apart.

The whole time, Ahmed and his helpers are wearing full personal protective equipment — gowns, visors, gloves and masks.

“It’s a highly risky job. We feel we are front line of the front line,” Ahmed said. “You must be very, very careful in all that you do.”

Ahmed is a 65-year-old retired travel agent, with his own underlying ailments, who moved to London from Bangladesh in 1977. After he gave up full-time work, he served as a translator for the local municipality and others. He speaks six languages. He and his wife have three adult children: a property manager, a schoolteacher and an administrator who works for the National Health Service.

Ahmed started volunteering with the funeral service in 2006. He said that it is an honor to prepare the dead for burial and that he is glad to be able to serve his community, especially now, during a crisis.

The British government’s guidance is that people suspected to have died of the novel coronavirus “should be considered a potential source of infection while they remain in the care environment whether refrigerated or not.”

Some of Ahmed’s volunteers have stayed away, out of fear. “They have families, they are frightened for their families. I understand,” he said. Many days, the caretaker of the mosque has been the only one to assist him. The Greenwich mosque, like all places of worship in Britain, has been shuttered during the pandemic.

Though Ahmed takes his work seriously, he is not a somber man. He jokes to his friends, “I say hello to the virus every day. I say hello, and I come back. I am one of the lucky ones. So far.”

He said, “It is God’s duty to protect us, and I believe he will, because without us, who will help the families?”

But there are no guarantees, he knows, ticking off fellow undertakers and staff members at mosques around London who have been stricken by the virus.

He said that as part of his faith, he believes those who die from this virus are martyrs who will quickly ascend to heaven.

“But, oh, this is so hard on the families,” he said.

Photo edited by Chloe Coleman. Designed by Victoria Adams Fogg.

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