One can learn many lessons at a graveyard. I once found myself helping carry the corpse of a stranger, an old woman, to its final abode. At the time, I was a 20-year-old on a family trip to the Holy City of Medina in Saudi Arabia.
Following the ish'a (night) prayers at the Prophet's Mosque (Al-Masjid al-Nabawi) and the recitation of obligatory funeral prayer, I came across a middle-aged man searching for help to transport the coffin of the woman, who I later learned was his mother. She had passed away a few hours earlier and her son was eager to fulfill her final wish: to be buried immediately after death.
The son was the only family member present. He was anxious to hastily transport the steel coffin, containing the corpse of his mother wrapped in a white shroud, to the Garden of Heaven or, as it is called in Arabic, Janatu l-Baqi', a graveyard adjacent to the Prophet's Mosque. (Photos of the Prophet's Mosque and the Garden of Heaven are below.)
Since it was late at night, the mosque had emptied quickly and there weren't many eager beavers to lend a hand. A few men on their way out of the mosque regrettably declined the man's pleas for assistance, saying they had far travel before reaching home. I wanted to help, but I was unsure if I would be able to carry the coffin all the way to the grave situated a couple of hundred meters away.
After a handful of men gathered to move the coffin, four men including me lifted it in unison and rested each corner on the shoulder. As we proceeded toward the graveyard, the coffin was tilted toward my side since I was relatively shorter than the other three.
"She isn't heavy," I thought to myself in relief.
A man behind me yelled blessings to the dead as we commenced our walk towards the Medina graveyard. We all joined in enthusiastically, chanting blessings to the dead.
Our voices started to get dimmer as we ran out of breath. The farther we moved away from the mosque, the darker it became. In the sunlight, the sands of Medina graveyard vary in color from orange to a shade that borders on red, with volcanic rocks scattered throughout the grave marking the grave. But at night, it was pitch-black. Our pathway was lit only by the light illuminating from the towering minarets atop the mosque, where Prophet Muhammad, peace and blessings be upon him, rests along with Abu Bakr, the first caliph, and Umar ibn Al-Khattab, the second caliph, may God be pleased with both.
After a few uneven steps, the buckle of one of my sandal's broke, forcing me to push it aside as we continued forward. The ground was warm, even at this late hour. I could barely see where my feet were stepping in the wide graveyard around us. I was granted some relief when a man volunteered to help, seeking only reward from the Creator.
We walked aimlessly for a bit, trying our best not to trample over the other graves as we searched for the woman's resting spot. Once we located it and rested the coffin beside the dugout, I took a peak at the grave. It was remarkably dark -- the darkest shade of black that I have ever seen.
As I stood among these strangers with death before my eyes, and a six-foot deep grave that felt suffocating from above, the importance of my worries drifted away, and I began reflecting on the temporality of life.
It dawned on me how near we are all to death, our inevitable fate, although many of us think about death very rarely.
Quite out of the blue, I felt I was granted clues and answers to questions that had been filling my mind: Why am I here? And where will I go from here?
I had little to no sense of time. My startled parents went out looking for me when they saw all the doors of the Prophet's Mosque closed from the window of our hotel room. I arrived back at the hotel more than an hour later than usual, yet the impression the experience left on me has been lasting. It was a moment of clarity, an hour that changed the very foundation of my existence.
"A moment of true reflection is worth more than ages of heedless worship," Faraz Rabbani, a leading Islamic scholar, said recently on Twitter.
His words reminded me of that night. At certain points in our lives, we have experiences that shake us to the core and compel us to question our outlook on existence and, if we cultivate them properly, bring us nearer to the Almighty. Even many years later, in times when anger, distress, tribulation or temptation has attempted to sway me, my mind returns to that graveyard.
When you become mindful of death, you think and act differently. It becomes difficult to lash out in anger when we know how near death could be. A person conscious of death would think twice before defrauding and deceiving another human being.
By remembering that we will all perish and be buried in dirt, taking none of our possessions with us, it becomes undesirable to wrong or hurt someone intentionally. But one has to realize that death is inevitable.
My recollection of the funeral procession that night is vivid. I remember how time seized for me in the midst of that graveyard. I recall the haunting feeling of suffocation and discomfort that kept me awake that night.
Back in the hotel, as I rested my head on the plush pillow, in an arctic air-conditioned room, I thought of the rock-hard walls encircling that meager grave.
We need not reflect on death at all times to keep us on track. Paying attention to life -- to the wondrous creations of the universe around us -- can always draw us near to God and prompt us to be grateful. But also reflect on death, since it turns you away from the superficiality of the world and curbs your ego.
I would not say I am a man of immense knowledge. I haven't spent an adequate amount of time fully uncovering the miracles of the Quran as deeply as I should. I have my ups and down. My faith, at times, dangles, and then I have to realign my thoughts. It happens more often than I am ready to confess here.
Yet I find remembering the inevitability of death from time to time is one way to stay grounded. During a course on Buddhist ethics I took a decade ago with Robert Thurman, the professor related a tale of a newlywed royal couple who went to a celebrated monk, Atisha, for marriage advice.
Initially hesitating to offer any since he had never been married himself, the monk finally yielded, giving some of the soundest marital advice I have heard: "Eventually, husband and wife, each will die. So now while alive, you should strive to be kind to each other."
Thoughts of death need not flood our minds with sorrow and negativity, as we should understand that death is a natural part of the journey of life.
If we work on making every prayer count as if it's our last and set aside time from our busy schedules, including the social media that consumes a measurable chunk of our day, to unwind the thoughts and worries entangled in our minds, we may become better humans and will indeed have a greater chance of living with peace.
Janatu l-Baqi': The Garden of Heaven and the Prophet's Mosque
Many thanks to Kevin Martin for licensing photography for this article.