Syria’s funeral customs are ritualised affairs which vary considerably from region to region.
Whether in church or at the mosque, funerary rites are very similar across Syria. The ceremonies held before and after burial, however, vary a lot from one region to another. Two young women from Damascus and Saida Zeinab, a grandmother from Hassakeh, a painter from Marmarita, an ‘arada band conductor from Damascus and the mayor of Jaramana tell Syria Today how they mark the passing of their loved ones.
Dancing at funerals
Cries of joy fill the air when the ‘arada band – a traditional music group that sings and performs swordplay during weddings and other celebrations – arrives. However, no happy couple is in sight. Instead, a group of men dressed in black approach with a coffin on their shoulders.
“When a pregnant woman or a young mother dies, we sing wedding songs at the funeral,” Nibal Abdoun, a journalism student from Damascus whose friend died in a car accident shortly after giving birth, explained. “I sounded cries of joy at her funeral and prayed for her soul to rest in peace.”
Abu Fayyad, the conductor of the Al-Cham Al-Qadimeh ‘arada band, said it is not uncommon for his group to be invited to perform at funerals throughout the city.
“Damascenes hire an ‘arada band after the death of young bachelors and children as well, to celebrate the wedding they will never have,” he said. “Some people are against having an ‘arada band at a funeral, but sometimes you are just so sad that you need to express your feelings and lose yourself in the music.”
Aside from these musical performances, Damascene funerals are solemn affairs. Prior to the funeral, the corpse is washed and wrapped in two or four pieces of linen or satin cloth. Before tying the cloth’s ends, the mghassel (the person who washes the corpse) asks the family whether the deceased has any debts and who will pay them. Traditionally, the eldest member of the family takes responsibility for the debts, allowing the departed to rest in peace.
To further absolve the sins of the deceased, wealthy Damascene families used to build a sabeel (water fountain) with the name of the deceased inscribed on it. Each person who used the fountain was then asked to recite the fateha (first verse of the Koran) for the soul of the departed.
A sacrifice for the soul
“When someone from my village dies, his family slaughters a ram or a bull as an offering to God to protect his soul,” Roula, a young woman from Qusmeyn, a village on the outskirts of Lattakia, said. “The sheikhs recite prayers and bless the knife before slaughtering the animal.”
The family then invites the poor to lunch, usually for a meal of meat with bulgur, saying a short prayer for the deceased. The sacrifice takes place after the wake and is repeated twice: 40 days after the funeral and again on its anniversary.
“Wakes in our village last for an odd number of days, usually five days for women and seven for men,” Roula said.
During the period of mourning, women dress in black and men grow beards as a sign of grief. The funeral itself is only attended by men; they carry the coffin to the grave, where the corpse is placed wrapped in a white shroud, in accordance with Islamic custom. Prayers are then recited as the grave is covered. Women visit the grave after it has been filled. Three days after the wake begins, the family returns to the grave.
“They go at sunrise and place flowers and myrtle on the grave,” Roula explained.
The tombstone, however, is only placed on the grave 40 days after the burial.
“People in my village believe that the soul dwells near the grave for 40 days,” she said. “That’s why they only place the tombstone afterwards, to avoid trapping it.”
A large room in Saida Zeinab is filled with dozens of women dressed in black and white. In the background, a tape recorder plays Koranic verses. A woman wearing a loose white headscarf offers newcomers small cups of strong and bitter coffee. At the same time, Bushra, a woman in her thirties, invites groups of three to enter the adjacent room every few minutes. Here, the deceased’s family sits, with three empty chairs facing them. Mourners enter and sit in silence for a few minutes before quietly leaving.
“Mourners don’t speak to the family,” Bushra explains. “They only nod at them in silence and leave after softly reciting the fateha three times.”
Men and women attend separate wakes, which are usually held for three days at the home of the deceased. On the third day, a mouled (a night of religious chanting) is organised in memory of the deceased. The wake is then repeated on four successive Thursdays after the death. The period of mourning ends with a big lunch and a mouled on the fortieth day of mourning.
A week of wakes
Sitting in his living room, Nour al-Din Barakat, the mayor of Jaramana, points to one of many dusty photographs on the wall. In the picture he is dressed in black from head to toe, except for a white headscarf and a shining dagger on his waist.
“We used to attend funerals in a black suit, but today young mourners sometimes wear white shirts – a disgrace,” he said disapprovingly.
The dress code is not the only thing that has changed in Jaramana’s funeral rituals. Since the building of the two maukefs (medium-sized auditoriums) in the Damascus suburb in 1948, they have become the official place for grieving families to receive condolences.
Men and women visit separate maukefs and carry out different rituals. Female relatives cry loudly and hit themselves to express their grief, while the men gather solemnly to reflect on the life of the recently departed. The wake that follows the funeral can last for a full week.
“When a loved one or someone of rank dies, the funeral must last at least one week,” Barakat said.
In Um Hamzeh’s village located near Hassakeh in the Jazeera region, a family never mourns the death of a loved one alone.
“When someone dies, the whole village shares the family’s grief,” Hamzeh, a short woman in her sixties, said.
As part of the mourning period, the relatives of the deceased refuse to shave or bathe. In an act of solidarity, the whole village follows suit for at least eight days. After this period, friends will visit the grieving family and convince them to take a bath so that the rest of the village can also wash and shave again.
After this, the village continues mourning by not listening to music or watching TV for up to a year. Um Hamzeh explains that this tradition is slowly fading, however, and while the family of the deceased may not listen to music for a year, the rest of the village does.
“People today watch TV and listen to music, but they keep it very low as a sign of respect.”
Money rather than flowers
As the church bells sound the death knell, the people of Marmarita, a village in the Wadi Al-Nasarah (Valley of Christians) region of Homs, grimly make the sign of the cross over their chests. Someone has died.
“Church bells used to be the only way to announce someone’s death,” Fadi Yazigi, a Syrian painter from Marmarita, said. “Today, the name of the deceased is broadcast through loudspeakers and na’awes [obituaries] are pasted around the village.”
The corpse is buried 24 hours after death and only after the deceased’s family and friends have eaten the lukmet el rahmeh (bite of mercy). The deceased is then washed and dressed and the corpse is taken to church where the priest talks about the person’s good deeds.
Following the funeral, the deceased’s family used to wear black for a year – some wives never took off their mourning clothes. Today, however, the family mourns for no more than six months.
“Customs have changed a lot: people no longer bring flowers to the funeral,” Yazigi said. “Instead, they pay money to help the family and the church.”
Photos by Carole al-Farah
This article was published in Syria Today magazine