In the first of Gus Palmer’s photographs of the morgue at the Greenwich Islamic Centre I can’t find the horizontal. The floor tips to the left and if I rotate it right then the stacks of coffins look as though they’ll tumble.
Normally, preparing the dead for burial brings volunteer undertaker Kafil Ahmed to the morgue about once a week. During the last week of March and first half of April his commitment became more than full-time. ‘It’s like a battle,’ he told me on the phone this autumn. ‘We were constantly fighting the virus. Before we finish one, another phone call comes to collect another person.’ His morgue has cool storage for three bodies; he had around four to prepare each day. ‘I’m an elderly person. I have a heart problem.’ Ahmed’s body looks tense, but in the photograph when he has removed his PPE we see the gentleness in his face. ‘We do it for Allah,’ he told me.
In early April the breakdown of the mortality rate across ethnic, social, economic and geographic divides wasn’t yet clear, but Palmer’s sense anecdotally was that Ahmed’s community in south-east London was being disproportionately affected. He had eight friends, undertakers in other mosques in se18, who had all contracted the virus. Six recovered, but two of them died.
‘In normal times taking photographs of the deceased is against religion,’ Ahmed told me, ‘but because this was Covid-19 we needed to educate people and give the community some messages to be safe, to take care of their family members, to know that this virus is quite deadly.’
What began for Gus Palmer as a story about the worst of Covid-19 also became a series of portraits of Ahmed. We see his defiance of the pandemic, and the pride he takes in his work. Here’s a person risking his life for others. Here’s a community taking care of the dead and their loved ones.
‘We’re purifying the body and making it ready for the person to travel to his or her Lord,’ Ahmed said. ‘We don’t send a dirty body.’ In the rituals of prayer and washing is a sense of life in death: a soul journeying to God, and bacteria returning to the earth. ‘All mankind, I created you from the dust and I will put you back into the dust,’ Ahmed quotes from the Qur’an. ‘And I will resurrect you from the dust on the day of judgement.’