I will come back to these questions, but first I want to share an observation I made the other day: When I was visiting my neighbor whose mother passed away recently, I noticed that she made a comment that death is generally considered to be the will of God. Much more emotion can be shown than some Westerners are comfortable with. Though it is the will of God, this does not mean that grief and emotion are at all lessened. When people refer to a deceased person they will often add the adjective rahmetli (with mercy of God) to the person’s name.
If the neighbor in your building loses a loved one, a visit to the deceased family is appropriate. Turks will drop everything for friends or family members who have suffered a loss. There are certain phrases that are polite to say to the bereaved, such as “Başınız sağ olsun” (Health to your head), “Allah rahmet eylesin” (May God grant them mercy), and “Allah sabır versin” (May God give you patience).
Perhaps you have noticed that funeral arrangements are made very quickly. Muslims believe that the body should be buried within 24 hours. At the service the Al-Fatiha, the first chapter of the Quran, is recited. Praise is offered to Allah and then a petition for his mercy on the souls of all present and on the soul of the deceased is stated. After this follows the most important communal act: the discharge. The imam asks, “What was the deceased person like to you?” The reply is “We found him/her to be a good person.” The imam asks, “Do you forgive him/her for anything they have done?” The reply is “We forgive him/her.” This is your “final duty” to the deceased, and it is very important to attend the funeral and give him or her this absolution.
Here I would like to address the two questions in the introduction: The question of the first foreigner is a fair question. In America people of different faiths or no faith can be buried in the same cemetery as long as you have bought your plot. At the funeral, unlike in America, the crowd carries the coffin to the hearse. It is not common for non-Muslims to be buried in a Muslim cemetery. Usually special permission must be obtained. Burials are in municipal cemeteries; you may have noticed that Turkish cemeteries usually have many cypress trees.
The second question raised earlier is something that often catches foreigners off guard when they have had an operation. It is very important for a Muslim that the body is buried intact as Muslims believe in bodily resurrection on judgment day. Most foreigners are unaware that at a Muslim burial the body is taken out of the coffin and buried in its shroud, together with any missing body parts and organs. The last respectful act is a prayer: “O servant of God, say that my god is Allah and my prophet is Muhammad and my book is the Quran and my religion is Islam.”
Another difference between a Muslim funeral and an American one is rather than sending wreaths and flowers, in Turkey donations are made to charity. You’ll see at the mosque different charities have stands for donations, or a gift may be sent directly to the charity in memory of the deceased. This practice is becoming more common in the West. Some families may ask in the obituary for those wanting to send flowers to instead make a donation to a particular charity.
It is customary for Muslims to have a religious ceremony seven days after death and again 40 days later, in which the Quran will be read at home. It is also a tradition to distribute a piece of lokma, a sweet pastry, at the end of the ceremony. You’ll notice on religious holidays the family will regularly go to the graveside to pray; the deceased are to be visited, greeted and remembered during prayer.
Note: Charlotte McPherson is the author of “Culture Smart: Turkey, 2005.” Please keep your questions and observations coming: I want to ensure this column is a help to you, Today’s Zaman’s readers. Email: email@example.com