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'Our duty to our martyrs': preparing NZ dead for burial

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Christchurch (New Zealand) (AFP)

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.

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.

But the mosque, the first of two Muslim houses of worship struck in the March 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.

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.

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.

Bodies were then washed three times, first with lukewarm water, then 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 -

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

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.

"We?ve barely slept the last three nights. We started washing the bodies at 8 am and would finish each day at around 2 am, 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 2 am 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.

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