Empty graves.

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"God, take me as well, I can't live with this pain" begged a gentleman to whilst gripping onto the nearest relative in the office area of Behesht Zahra, Tehran's immense graveyard (with, at a guess, 5-million resting bodies) situated near the shrine of Imam Khomeini. Further loud cries were silently watched by the many separate burial parties both in and out of the administration area. Crowds gather around a screen after having paid, cancelled birth certificates and taken care of other formalities, waiting to see their time come. "Would you like to see the bodies washed?" asked one of our party – such things cannot be decided, one only knows when it might be too late - I went anyway.

A distant relative – one I was not sure I'd even met – had had a heart-attack the previous day yet due to him not being that old we had a long wait while tests were carried out. During the wait I met with many relatives I still had not seen since arriving 5-months previous, we consciously kept the smiles to a minimum whilst catching up. In between this my father helped piece together the family tree while I attempted to figure out both my association and theirs to our late relative.

"These are the bodies after they have been washed" pointed out the friend of the family. "These ones have not been claimed" he went on. My confused face prompted him to explain further, "Maybe they have been murdered or in a car accident". One of them had definitely been in a car accident by the shape of the white cloth that tightly wrapped around it's body. "This one again, no name" he said while I watched two distressed men unwrap one of the three bodies to look at the face. "They photograph them before they take them for burial..." he added before we were interrupted and asked to help load them to the car waiting outside.

We followed the railings where a line of wrapped bodies entered a small hole in the wall leading to the washing and wrapping room beside a narrow viewing corridor. We were separated by the dense crowd pushing and pulling, struggling to get a glimpse of their loved ones through the slim windows. It was the same when we returned with our late relative. "He's here", called my dad who had allowed some room for me to look in.

Two men lifted his naked body into a shallow stone bath, his stitched chest from the autopsy triggered a murmur through the onlooking family. A small cloth was placed over his genitals and the washing commenced. Would I want to see my dad like this I thought whilst looking at our late relative's son who, for the first time, gave up the solid stance and dropped his first tear. He, like others, were then comforted and led out as their uncontrolled shrieks brought the room to silence.

There was too much to watch and too little did I understand. What is that liquid for? What is the green powder for? What is this procedure for? The body exited the room and we collectively lifted the stretcher, exited the building to join the women who waited outside. After walking a short distance shouting, "There is no God other than Allah" repeatedly, we placed the body down in a sheltered area where other parties conducted similar prayers. Hands rushed down to the body with tears following. Women shrieked out, "Uncle!", "Brother!", "Dad!", "Son", as they grabbed at any available body part.

As we went through various symbolic stages of this burial, the chesty cries and shuddering shrieks chipped away at me. I considered that Muslim burials are very public: the pain is very much on show. There seemed to be no climax, the cries got louder as we past each stage of the actual burial itself. During the hysteric shrieks of the women I couldn't help but think that they thought he would hear their statements and requests – it confused me that they were like this, yet this I learned is very much how Islam presents death: they shake the bodies in the grave whilst asking the person to remember all his Imams and of course his God.

I asked the family friend how many times he'd been to this place, "more than twenty?" I enquired. "Try more than 50" he replied. It sat in my mind that I would return many more times myself, I looked around at all the family and tried not to imagine each occasion. We all have our last time, but we will not drop a tear on that occasion.


  • David:

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    By Anonymous Sean K., at 6:01 AM  

  • My family and I are not Muslim, so the way we carry out certain rituals will differ from Muslims, but in the end I have realized that we are all still Iranian and grief is something that Iranian culture displays publicly. I’m almost tempted to say it’s a common thread between all Middle Eastern countries, especially as I think back on documentaries I’ve filled my head with about Palestinians, watching 80 year old women go back to their old villages to grieve, watching them rock back and forth screaming out for Allah. I remember being a small child and watching my mother and aunts grieve for my late uncle (actually my shohar khaleh); I was quite young, but the most vivid memory was that of my khaleh taking me to his grave and watching her fall on the ground and yell as she rocked back and forth. Being so young I didn't understand what was going on, I didn't even realize anyone had passed away, as I got older and realized what this memory was I found it strange... because growing up in America the images of grieving I witnessed were through television and movies, where Americans are very solemn and quiet about it. For some reason growing up I always found it the more rational way to grieve, I did not understand the purpose of screaming and yelling and generally just riling others up. I think I was rather immature and didn't understand the pain of grief, I had a rather uncomfortable wake up call when someone very close to me passed away a few years ago. Despite how I viewed "proper" grieving, I collapsed. I collapsed and got down on my knees and began to scream, I can't even remember as I think back what, if anything, I was saying. For months this was the way that I would grieve, I would be unable to stand and I would hold myself and rock back and forth as I screamed and cried. I am not a religious person, nor was I at that point in my life, but I do remember yelling out phrases like "Yá Bahá'ul 'Abhá" out while crying. Even now it is difficult for me to watch those same documentaries or see photos or video of people in the Middle East grieving, because the whole screaming and yelling really does nothing but upset other people, when I hear shrieks from women I am reminded of the ones I let out while grieving, and it brings back painful memories; I am sure the same applies to most Iranians.. but it comes naturally. I think that is why when I was in that situation I acted in the same way as my aunts and mother rather than the way I saw Americans grieve. It takes effort and a lot of bottling up to be somber and collected rather than vocal. Perhaps it stems from the fact that the majority of the Middle East IS Muslim and therefore people of different religions still grieve in the same manner since it has become so ingrained in the culture.. but I doubt this as I imagine grieving was handled the same way before the birth of Islam in the Middle East.
    Anyway, I'm sorry to have made this so long, I would like to syndicate your blog and add it as a feed on LiveJournal.. because I am lazy and in doing so I wouldn't have to come to this site to check entries, I will be able to pull it up with the rest of the entries I check :) Would that be alright ?

    By Anonymous Tahereh, at 2:32 AM  

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