it is with regret that i report on a death.
i am sitting in the FPA office on a monday morning when our director hurries out of her office, shaking her head and wiping tears from her eyes, and runs out the front door. within minutes we are informed that her father has passed away and she will not be returning to the office that day or any soon thereafter.
we are all stunned and saddened by the news, not having known the deceased but feeling the palpable sorrow of our director. by the afternoon we are updated on the funeral ceremonies to follow and we arrange our attendance with one another.
as with everything else, funeral ceremonies in iran differ vastly from those traditionally held in the states (by traditional i mean the open-casket, funeral home scene i’ve seen in the movies). firstly, there is not one, but five separate ceremonies held the day of or right after the death, on the 3rd, 7th, and 40th days after the death, and again on the one-year anniversary. the day of/after is the burial ceremony. though it is largely for close family and friends, a few of my coworkers decide to attend and because my director as been so good to me since my arrival, i feel my presence will be a small way in which to return the kindness.
we arrive at the hospital where the body is collected by the family and everyone is driven to the nearby home of the lost loved one. we wait inside the apartment, shoes off, heads down, women in one room men in another. when the ambulance hearse arrives, a group of pallbearers carry the deceased’s body, in a simple metal gurney, bound tightly in a white sheet and covered with a traditional paisley shroud (known as a termeh), up the stairs of the apartment building and into the middle of the living room where we are all standing. they place the body on the ground and our director, the first child and only daughter of the dead, falls to her knees next to the body. lost in agony, she wails and tears at her face, beats her head and chest with her hands. she places her hands on the body and cries out, desperately explaining between heavy sobs what a good and decent man has been lost, what a tragedy has befallen the family. all the women, upon seeing this raw display, begin to sway and howl in unison, weeping openly to exhibit their sadness. the bold show of emotion is so overwhelming that I too begin to cry.
after a few minutes, the pallbearers return to remove the body and place it back in the hearse, ready to be taken to the cemetery where it will be washed, blessed, and wrapped in sheets for the final time. we stay behind for a while and are served dates and halva, traditional funeral food. some women read prayers from the Q’uran and blow into a jar of water that will later be sprinkled on the body as it lays in the grave. when word reaches us that the family is heading to the gravesite with the prepared deceased, we board a rented tour bus and head an hour outside of tehran.
the cemetery is a large and well-kept space, lush with grass and weeping willows. it is the cemetery of iran’s most prominent artists and while we await the arrival of the body, i tour the grounds looking for the grave marker of the great poet, shamlou. unsuccessful on my own, I request the help of a groundskeeper, who takes me to a square plot with no stone or any identifiable markings. “no matter how many times we replace the gravestone, they always come and steal it,” he shrugs.
by now the family is heading through the cemetery gates, and we all gather near the entrance. the hearse backs in to the driveway and the deceased is once more lifted up by prayer and pall bearer, to be carried around the mosque in the center of the cemetery before being taken to the plot. the men holding the gurney lead the procession, repeating a single prayer to god as they circle the grounds. as per iranian tradition, they rest the body on the ground three times before taking it to its grave so that the dead are not afraid when they are finally placed beneath the earth. the women follow behind, grieving openly and murmuring their own personal prayer for the dead.
at the plot there are more prayers and as the body is lowered into the ground, the entire assembly bursts into tears. gravediggers quickly seal the hole and the men and women take turns kneeling at the site, placing their hands in the dirt and whispering their final goodbyes.
when this first of many ceremonies is through, we head to a local restaurant where the family provides lunch as a way of showing their gratitude for all those present. we offer our condolences to the family and promise to continue the support by attending the ritual on the 3rd day of death, a much tamer service held in a mosque three days later.
at the end of the day i am worn from all i have seen and can only imagine the sorrow that will continue to shroud the family as they put their grief on display over and over in the year to come.