In my piece “In sickness and death” (May 5, 2012) in response to a letter from a foreigner asking what to for her Turkish friend whose relative had just passed, I shared a few points on what to do when a Turk passes away.
LaVone V. Hazell on the website funeralwise.com says that when it comes to cross-cultural funeral rites, there are cultural universals that have remained consistent: announcing the death, caring for the deceased, a method of disposal, a possible ceremony or ritual and some form of memorial.
For example, in Turkey, a wealthy family may place a message of condolence in the newspaper. Often an employer, business contacts or friends will also do so. An important person may have a whole page or more of condolences offered in a paper.
According to sociologist Norman Goodman, funeral rites can be richly diverse. As pointed out in my previous piece, the major difference in the funeral rites of Muslims is the period of time permitted between death to burial; the Muslim custom requires burial as soon as possible (to exceed 24 hours would be an anomaly). In contrast to American funeral rites, Muslim funeral rites do not allow for cremation and, in some ways, Muslim rites are based more on ritual than economics or the individual's social standing within the sect.
The body is washed, often at home. A coffin is made of wood and is very basic. It is transported in a small green truck owned by the municipality. A green cloth is used to cover the coffin, and on this is embroidered a Quranic verse in gold stating that “every soul shall taste death.” The funerary prayer is conducted at the mosque in the courtyard. The coffin is placed on a stand that is perpendicular to the qiblah (the direction of Mecca). Prayer for the departed soul is generally offered immediately after a congregational prayer.
Men stand by the coffin in rows and women stand near the edge of the courtyard a short distance away. The Fatiha, the first chapter of the Quran, is recited. Praise is offered to God and a petition is made for his mercy on the souls of all present and on the soul of the deceased. Then follows the most important group act, wherein the imam asks, “What was the deceased person like to you?” The reply is “We found them to be a good person.” The imam asks, “Do you forgive them for anything they [may] have done?” The reply is “We forgive them.” This is your “final duty” to the deceased. The crowd carries the coffin to the hearse. Muslims do not believe in cremation. Burial takes place at a cemetery owned by the municipality.
The body is buried intact. Relatives may have kept body parts removed during surgery in life, such as the appendix, to bury with the corpse. This is important, as they believe in a full bodily resurrection on Judgment Day. The body is taken out of the coffin and buried in just its shroud. The shrouded corpse is covered with planks or stones, then a cloth or a mat and then some soil. The last act of respect performed is a prayer. “O servant of God, say that my god is Allah, my prophet is Muhammad, my book is the Quran and my religion is Islam.” It is very important that the body be aligned perpendicular to the qiblah (facing Mecca).
Each family sepulcher is marked. The tombstone often has the words “Ruhuna Fatiha” on it. This calls for the Surah Fatiha to be read for the soul of the deceased and is similar in idea to “may his soul rest in peace.” Unlike in some countries where individuals would send wreaths and flowers when a person dies, in Turkey donations to charity should be made. At the mosque used for the funeral, different charities have stands present and a donation may be made there to one of the charities or a gift may be sent directly to the charity and designated in memory of the deceased person.
It is customary to have a religious ceremony (mevlut) seven days after death and again 40 days later, for which the Quran is read in the home. It is also tradition to distribute a piece of lokma, a sweet pastry, at the end of the ceremony. This is done in memory of the deceased. The family will regularly go to the graveside to pray: The deceased are to be visited, greeted and remembered in prayer.
Wherever you are, funerals provide solace for the living and ritual and respect for the deceased.