In normal times, mosque yards are crowded for funerals. “Funeral ceremonies are the cocktail parties of the secular” they say, jokingly. But these ain’t no normal times. Hence, the stopover for prayers at the mosque is cancelled by order of authorities. One takes the body of the loved one from the municipality’s facility where dead bodies are washed and cleaned according to religious custom. You can’t hop on the funeral hearse car as it too is forbidden, skip the mosque, skip the customary final salute driving past the home of the deceased, straight to the graveyard with an embarrassed haste.
There, a handful of people, mostly closest relatives and their even fewer friends stand side by side to form a short line for the last prayers. One wonders whether the graveyards reflect the local custom or religious dictum or both. I tend to believe that especially historic Istanbul graveyards are perfect vessels of that hybrid, refined cosmopolitan culture. Cypress trees, small marble ponds at the feet end of graves for birds to dip their tiny beaks in, bare chested rectangular graves for the rain seen as God’s forgiveness to reach the bodies of the loved ones sheltered by the earth.
It’s a total contradiction of the well-organized, well-manicured catholic cemeteries perhaps. It’s quite an affair to navigate the graves to find the final destination. Some say that once dead, our bodies get heavier. You once manage to haul your cargo, the professional grave digger invites the closest relative to jump in to the freshly open hole. For a short while one stands in the grave, takes the body of the loved one in his arms for a last time and very carefully lays her in her eternal bed. Then you undo the three knots of the white rudimentary shroud as if releasing the deceased from her worldly concerns and burdens.
Having turned her to her side for her to face towards qibla and put a handful soil under her head it is time to climb out of the hole with the help of someone who reaches out from the up above to pull you out. Again normally, everyone takes turns to use the spade three times to throw soil inside the grave. Nowadays you complete the task on your own until a modest tumulus appears on top as there is no one there waiting to take the spade from your hands. Putting the spade to the side the very few mourners listen to the prayers of the imam and pray silently each according to their own belief or not.
Birds chirping from the height of century old cypress trees, the worms and the leeches, and the wild grown plants which are perceived as “godsent” -as no one intentionally planted them there- provide ample food for thought for the paganistically inclined. Nature’s heavenly balance appears to remain intact once the body of the loved one is in earth’s bosom. Yet the knowledge of the pandemic lingers somewhere in the back of the heads of everyone present as the reminder of the grim reaper lurking beyond the morbid serenity of the cemetery.
The imam too is apologetically in a hurry. I try to appear comforting in reiterating over and over again that everything is in order according to Islam. I even attempt to reassure him by patting his shoulder but my hand remains hanging in the air as the wide-eyed imam is aghast of this potential physical contact. I turn towards the sole digger who bore most of the brunt. He vehemently refuses the generous tip hidden in my hand by pushing my fist away from him and exclaims: “Free of charge sir, I only accomplished my duty.” Nothing to do but to implore God’s grace for everyone present. Time to spread some water over the grave and head home. As a good friend reminded me: “The general ledger is now closed” –and for good.
My mum was just shy of 81 years old. She battled lung cancer and COPD for a long time. I had rushed her to the emergency service over a month and a half ago. The last two weeks she was at the ICU sleeping and hopefully dreaming under the effect of sedatives and painkillers. The last couple of days doctors warned us that she was in critical condition. We were not allowed neither to see her nor to set foot at the hospital for this last two weeks. It was sort of a long goodbye, like crossing the final bridge from this material world to the next unknown.
Having been an extremely meticulous and disciplined woman like most of the Turkish or (sociologically speaking) “Mediterranean” mothers as well as having persistently shied away from any sort of religious rite all her life, she would probably be very content to see this shortened, practical, tidy funeral. She was also extremely wary of causing burden to anyone: This last time I had rushed her to the emergency service she had apologised to me for “ruining my Sunday.” The secular short cut from the hospital morgue to the cemetery circumventing the mosque would have pleased and amused her I think.
For others though, who are now bracing for the imminent impact of the COVID-19 pandemic in Istanbul this week I am not able to remain so warm-hearted. To the contrary I am quite angry at the short-sighted, cumbersome and even clueless political vaudeville that we are witnessing. And as my thoughts are with my mum, they are also with all the healthcare workers, from the specialist MD to the guy who works at the morgue so many floors under the ground level. This does not look good. I hope I will be proven wrong.