As the South Bronx community grieves the 17 people who died in the Twin Parks North West apartment complex fire, community groups are working together to carry out funeral arrangements.
In the Islamic tradition, funerals are conducted as quickly as possible — preferably the same day of a person’s death. But fulfilling that custom has been a challenge in this mass casualty event in which multiple city agencies are involved.
“That's why we're racing against time to get all the paperwork ready, especially for those that will not be buried [here],” said Dr. Bola Omotosho, chairperson of Bronx Community Board 5, which represents Fordham Heights.
Funeral prayers for 15 of the victims will take place at 10 a.m. Sunday at the Islamic Cultural Center in Concourse Village.
It’s believed that the 15 hail from Gambia and some of the families wish to bury their loved one back home.
A funeral for two of the victims – Seydou Toure, 12, and Haouwa Mahomoudu, 5 – was held on Wednesday in Harlem at the Timbuktu Islamic Center. Toure and Mahomoudu were siblings whose parents are from Mali, a West African country.
Community groups and leaders like Omotosho have been assisting with complications of shipping a body to another country for funeral services, including issues around travel and immigration status and costs.
“We’re working with elected officials, especially the office of the Community Affairs Unit in the mayor's office and other elected officials, so that red tape can be minimized in preparation for the funerals and uniting the loved ones,” he said.
Part of the support involves raising issues as they come up with the appropriate city agency or organization to get things resolved, and ensuring that the right information is getting communicated to the largely West African community.
“Early on, there was a great need for interpreters and making sure resources are going to be available to everybody, regardless of immigration status,” said Ahmed Mohamed, litigation director for Council on American-Islamic Relations New York.
A small room with lime green walls within the Islamic Cultural Center, a mosque in Concourse Village, has turned into a de facto “command center.”
Community leaders from within the mosque, the Fordham Heights neighborhood and across the city, including the Council on American-Islamic Relations, the Majlis Ash-Shura: Islamic Leadership Council of New York, Latino Muslims of New York and the Yemeni Merchants Association, have been coming together to support those affected by the fire, such as arranging hotel lodgings, food donations, crowdfunding matters, funeral planning and finances.
“Time is of essence because [the victims and their loved ones] are too distraught to know where to turn or what to do,” Omotosho said of the community support.
Another custom in Muslim funerals is the washing and wrapping of the bodies.
Originally, the goal was to hold a funeral for 15 of the victims on Friday, but logistical issues involved with releasing the bodies to the funeral home in Brooklyn to begin the washing and wrapping pushed the planned date to Sunday.
“We were trying very, very hard to do it on Friday,” said Cheick Musa Drammeh, a coordinator at the Islamic Cultural Center, where the prayer service is slated to take place. “But we found out that it's going to be difficult.”
Victims' bodies were transported on Thursday to the funeral home, according to mosque leaders. Holding the funeral service on Sunday would allow for enough time to properly prepare the bodies.
The number of times a body is washed depends on each person, with some instances of a body requiring two to five cleanings, said one imam.
But washing a body in the Muslim tradition is not too different from a non-Muslim cleaning, “just — how to start washing the body — where to start, where to end, which side first,” said Imam Moussa Wague of the Islamic Cultural Center.
After the body is cleansed, it’s wrapped in a simple white linen or cotton cloth.
The bodies will then be transported to the Islamic Cultural Center for the prayer service.
“And then we pray on them, make a supplication to Allah, asking God to forgive them,” Wague said.
The bodies, except those that will eventually be flown to Gambia, will then be taken to a burial site, which has not been confirmed, but will either be in New York or New Jersey.