FUNERALS IN CYPRUS
Personal Notes on Funerals in Cyprus by a foreign wife
By Lois Cemal….
About a month after arriving in Cyprus while I was out visiting a friend, I was drawn to look over the garden wall by a commotion on the road and was surprised to see my husband with our son, just 4 years old, walking with a crowd of people down the street. Four men were carrying a blanket-draped box on their shoulders, while other men stepped forward regularly to relieve each of the bearers in turn. Behind followed women, with one elderly lady in particular visibly distressed and crying, being supported on either side as she walked. It was the funeral of her mother. “I thought I’d take our boy along” my husband answered my querying look. “He can learn about this, too.”
In Cyprus, at least in our village, dying is a community affair. The villagers rally around the bereaving family members, helping them perform the rituals demanded by the Islamic faith. Whether assisting in digging the grave or just bringing some flowers and waiting at the house for the funeral to begin, each person contributes to the physical and emotional tasks of the burial and the grieving process, helping the family to cope.
The most dramatic aspect for me of the burial procedure is the speed at which everything happens. When death is of natural causes, such as old age or long illness, the funeral takes place as soon as possible, often on the same day. If death occurs during the night or early in the morning, the body can be in the ground just after the noon prayers. Sometimes burial can be delayed for a day or so to wait for a relative coming from far away, in which case they would be moved to the city morgue. Nine years after we came, we were grateful for the community spirit and effort when my father-in-law passed away while eating breakfast. He was 90 something and had just finished some watermelon and asked for a drink of water. My mother-in-law turned to put the beaker back on the table when his arm slid off the bed and he was gone. That was at 6 o’clock on a warm August morning. He was in the ground by 11 am. The unbearable heat that starts as soon as the sun is bright had something to do with it, as none of us had the energy or stamina to hang around for another hour or two.
Moslem funerals differ in other ways too. There are no funeral homes and the ritual washing of the body is done by certain men (or women) who are paid for their services. If one dies in hospital, they are prepared and brought to the graveyard in a public hearse. Every person, rich or poor, young or old, is laid to rest in 7 metres of unbleached cotton calico. There are no individual coffins, just a communal tabut, an open pine box . Many years ago in our village, the story goes, the tabut went missing from the mosque storeroom so an old door had to be used instead. The coffin was finally found in the yard of the muezzin (who calls the prayers) who was using it for a food trough to feed his sheep. Enterprising man, but I wonder how he thought he could get away with it.
The cemetery is about half a mile from the mosque and our village is well known for the attendance in the funeral procession. Even walking for a short distance behind the deceased is considered respectful. On reaching the place of burial, the casket is placed on a stone table near the gate and the men line up facing Mecca to be lead in prayer by the cleric. The tabut is then taken to the prepared gravesite and the swaddled body is removed from the box and laid, on its side facing Mecca, directly in the earthen grave. Traditionally, wooden supports and branches would have been placed over the body before the earth was filled in, but many boughs would take root, filling the grave and cemetery with unwanted trees. Nowadays, the council provides slabs of concrete to cover the shrouded body. When there are coffins for burial, as when someone dies overseas and has requested to be interned in the village graveyard, the hole has to be dug bigger to accommodate the box.
Filling in the dirt and piling up the mound is done communally by all the men present, each throwing on a few shovels of dirt then laying the shovel on the ground before another man picks it up. Fragrant myrtle branches are stuck in the mound between a rounded headstone and a pointed marker at the feet. Water that has had prayers said over it by the hoca is poured on the mound, incense lit and cut flowers placed. I have seen other decorations including things like the deceased’s walking stick, or, more tongue in cheek, empty bottles of his favourite alcohol placed there by his drinking buddies.
Cypriots can be quite superstitious about death. If one dies on a Friday or in the holy months between the 2 Moslem festivals it’s “good”, meaning you will go straight to heaven. Babies and pregnant women shouldn’t even see a funeral passing by. Some people put a knife or open pair of scissors on the body after it is washed and laid out, symbolic of cutting ties with the earthly existence. When one passes away with one or both eyes open it means they went without seeing someone who was dear to them. The strangest superstition I’ve heard of though, told to a friend of mine by her Cypriot mother-in-law, was that women have to wear at least 7 layers of clothing to cover their private parts when they go into a cemetery, so they won’t be “seen”. By whom, I wonder. At one funeral I remember the recently completed grave gave a sudden “whoosh” as a section of it collapsed (due to the scrimping of cement in the thin concrete slab covering the body) sending a puff of air out like a breath. The reaction was a collective jump and squeal of about 10 women who were beside it at the time, followed by wild-eyed mutterings of “Bismillah”, the Moslem equivalent of crossing oneself. I suppose it is of happenings like that, and other explainable occurrences, that fuel spooky stories to be told by people who’ve “heard’ or “seen” things within the cemetery. Graveyards are avoided when possible and none want the stigma of “being the last house before the mezarlik.” There’s an aliç tree in our village graveyard that gives a much sought after crabapple type of fruit in summer and you can be sure it doesn’t get picked. The same goes for winter mushrooms found within the fence. These are considered contaminated.
Turkish Cypriots don’t wear black at funerals as a sign of bereavement. Muslim widows do tone down their dress to exclude bright colours and patterns but usually don’t go for the head-to-toe black such as is common among Greeks or Italians. Women generally follow behind the men who have the job of shouldering the coffin in a funeral procession and women don’t participate in the cleric led prayers at the gate of the cemetery. Neither do they lift a shovel but I have seen women throw a symbolic handful of dirt on the mound. Widows in particular play a vital role in helping the recently bereaved family members cope with the sudden loss and pain of permanent separation by their physical caring, holding of hands, stroking of faces, and words of support. When a women screams or rants they admonish her firmly yet caringly by saying things like “Don’t make yourself sick. It won’t bring them back.” The part that I find most poignant that always brings a lump to my throat involves all those present before the beginning of a funeral when all gather around the draped coffin placed in the yard of the house on two chairs. The hoca, in his long robe and turban, asks all present how they have known the deceased to be. We all respond with “He was good.” and the question is asked a second and a third time. Then the cleric asks all present to discharge the deceased from any unfulfilled obligation by saying “Helal olsun.” This seems to be a good time to reflect on one’s own mortality and the pointlessness of petty anger and feuding between neighbours. It is a time when I remember my own departed mother who died when I was in Cyprus in 1999, and I know the tears I shed are for her and her memory and my own pain at our separation. We will all pass on in our turn and it is comforting in some ways to know that each of us will be mourned by all our friends and co-villagers in such a touching and meaningful manner. None of us know where we will end up, but I hope I’m buried near that crab apple tree. Then maybe I can look up at those sweet yellowing fruits and perhaps even get a taste of those that fall to the ground. Anything is possible!
Lois Cemal, a Canadian, has been married to her Turkish Cypriot husband for 38 years and they have 3 children. For 30 years she raised her family in a village in north Cyprus, keeping chickens and goats, making cheese and baking bread and learning much about Cypriot traditions and culture.