Thursday, June 12, 2008

Funeral Traditions

Wednesday evening a family in the building across from us put up a funeral tent. Since we live in different buildings we've never had opportunity to meet, so of course we didn't go to the funeral. It has been interesting, however, to be able to watch up close as outsiders since the funeral has been going on right under our kitchen window.

Funerals here are totally different from anything we Westerners are familiar with. There is no funeral home or church; everything except for the burial is conducted right in the front yard.

Here are a few things we've learned about the customs surrounding death during our years here:
  • The tent will be up for three days, and then will go up again on the seventh day, the fortieth day, and on the first anniversary of death. The ground inside the tent is covered with carpets, and occasionally the sides are also hung with carpets. Tables and chairs are set up for meals in the tent.
  • Funerals are segregated. Only men go into the tent, while the women congregate in the house. Typically, women cover their heads with a scarf whether they are religious or not. There is also a men's visiting day and a women's visiting day, although both are present on the day of burial.
  • The bereaved are expected to wait on the guests, not the other way around. Hot tea is served around the clock, and there are several large meals provided for guests during the week. One of the traditional dishes is called halva, a dessert made with flour and sugar cooked in butter. I have been told that it gives those who are sick or in mourning extra strength.
  • Although the family is responsible for cooking and serving the meals, guests will often bring gifts of rice, sugar cubes and candy to help out with the cost.
  • Islam requires that the burial take place within 24 hours of death. The body is placed on a canopy-covered stretcher and carried to the cemetary. Only men are allowed to be present at the burial.
  • A mullah (the Muslim equivalent of a Christian pastor) reads from the Quran, speaks for a few minutes, and sings. I couldn't hear all of this particular sermonette, but the little I did catch seemed to be about the inevitability of death. Every so often the mourners wipe one hand down the front of their face as a sign of grief while the mullah speaks.

Thankfully, we have not yet had the experience of attending the funeral of a close friend. Even watching this funeral of someone I've never met from my kitchen window, I was struck with the absolute hopelessness of those people's grief. There are so many people we know that are still without hope for the next life, and death brings that truth to the surface.

Please pray for our friends and neighbors here to come to the knowledge of Christ so that they "will not grieve as do the rest who have no hope." (1 Thessalonians 4:13)

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