Sunday, October 15, 2006

Egyptian Funerals

Thankfully I haven't had to attend any of these yet…. But I have seen a few. Large tents are erected in public places- often next to a mosque and posters put up about who has died so you know where to attend. When I first arrived I found it difficult to tell the difference between these and the tents often erected for weddings and other festivities! All the men gather in this tent. In Rural Egypt this lasts for 3 days- but in Cairo only for 1. The next of kin sitting by the entrance way to receive the condolences as men arrive. Very little conversation goes on- although that will vary on the social class of the person who has died- it is more respectful to stay totally silent. The whole time the Sheik will read from the Koran and lead prayers….. And that’s it, no talking about the person who has died, or specific mention of him. After the body is washed and wrapped in a white cloth (you are supposed to exit the world exactly as you arrive in it) the men would carry the coffin to the cemetery. The body however is buried directly into the ground, without a coffin. The women would stay behind at home so as to not make a public show of the mourning.

As for the women- sometimes there will be a separate area in the tent for them, but usually they all pile round to the wife/ mother/ daughter of the deceased and make a lot of noise. If the house is not big enough they will all sit on the ground in front of the house (more in rural areas again!) They talk about the person who has died and cry and sometimes (depending on the family again) wail. Often they will sway and repeat over and over the name of the dead person, or 'I lost my brother' or whatever- making it sound more like some sort of tormented poetry (Khalids phrase, not mine). No Wake with drinks and sandwiches and chatting about the dead person. However, women will come round to the grieving woman's house with food and to help with childcare, cleaning etc. Then 15 days after the death often there will be another gathering especially of the women, and often the poor people in the area will be fed. This happens again after 40 days and the men and women all gather and feed everyone (again the men and women are separate) After the 40 days are up however, the dead is dead and you are supposed to move on with your own life... this is part of the reason why graves are supposed to be unmarked. Sometimes however, the family will return to the grave and leave food there for the poor in the area. One reason why it is 40 days is because by then, if it is a womans husband who has died... she by that time knows if she is pregnant or not- so that she doesn't remarry carrying another man's child. 40 days is also the length of time it rained through the great flood with Noah and his ark- Noah in arabic is the name of a person who wails or cries continually.

Most of the rituals of death are shortened and restricted in Cairo compared to outside of Cairo- partially due to the space issues, i.e. tents on every street for 3 days would hinder the traffic even more than normal, plus peoples houses tend to be bigger so the men and women can both fit inside rather than out. Also I am guessing that like any city, although the community spirit is stronger here than many cities in the world, there must also be a higher degree of individuality so not EVERYONE who knew that people would necessarily attend the funeral. Seemingly the people who live outside Cairo think that the people in Cairo have no soul- imagine only spending one day praying for your dead relative instead of 3- so disrespectful!

Who knows- I am still learning about all of this………. there are so many things you take totally for granted in your own culture , right down even to the correct procedure to mourn for someone who dies. It really makes you think about why we do the things we do, and why it may be different in a different country…. Why in Islam it is essential that a body be buried within 24 hrs after death? Well- it makes sense in a hot country doesn't it…. Etc. Not to mention all the differences within a culture- i.e. Cairo habits compared to those in Luxor etc… In Egyptian Black is the colour of mourning, but in Morocco it is white.

Seemingly the ritual is just the same if it is a child who dies. I can't imagine being in that situation where your child dies and then for the next 3 days you don't see your husband because he is sitting in a tent with all the other men. It shows just how huge the difference is between a community based society and our own individual based one in Scotland, where people would pay their respects, then leave the couple alone together to find solace in each other. Something which sometimes couples don't actually master. Perhaps there are strengths in this community based ritual...?

Oh and of course- the above tends to relate to Islamic finerals... but of course then there are the christian ones- which I'll need to ask around about before I can write about!

Why all morbid and talking about funerals? I don't know- maybe that missing man got me thinking…….


Olesya said...

Interesting!...there is also a 40-day rememberance gathering in christian religion (at least in orthodox christian anyway) - apparently this is when the soul totally leaves for the other world...
I have also been wondering about egyptian graves and it now makes sense to me to know that they are supposed to be unmarked. We stumbled into a large open space somewhere in Baharia oasis and the map clearly said "graveyard" although it was nowhere to be seen! just a couple of goats roaming around. we though we'd got lost but then i noticed those small piles of stones scattered around, with a skull lying near one bunch - that was one eery experience...

Lorna (aka BellyLorna!) said...

yeah- i only just heard about the 40 day thing in orthodox too, recently.

however- finding a skull by a bunch of stones- dont think I'd like that!

eery doesn't quite cover it!!!!!

thank you for your blog comments- much appreciated!

Anonymous said...

Thank you for your write-up. An old highschool teacher of mine went home to Egypt to die of old age, and I had intended to visit his grave one day. Am I correct that it would be impossible?

Heather said...

i like you lorna you are pretty!

thankyou for helping me learn about egypt and you!