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CULTURE AND ART
Rituals of Death in Iran
A Brief History
by:
Last Updated: October, 2009
Partition

The body should be buried within 24 hours. It will be washed in accordance to Islamic traditions, scented with camphor ‘Kafoor’ (used by Zoroastrians as well) and wrapped in a white cloth (Kafan) with prayers recited. The person who performs the washing (mordeh shoor) should be a Muslim and from the same sex as the deceased. Sometimes close relatives or friends may undertake the washing themselves, but this is not very common. In the past the dead could be washed at home, but most Iranians today go to the designated places. In major cities, such acts are banned for heath concerns. If washed at home this event took place outdoors in an enclosure set up for the occasion to protect the body from being seen. With dead females the body was washed in an enclosure covered on every side including the top, so that the female’s naked body was not exposed to even sun or the sky. The whole body was washed including the hair. Nails will be cleaned and shortened. Once the body is washed ablutions are performed. Three watery solutions made with sedr (an ancient cleansing substance) camphor (kafoor) and fresh water, are used. The hands are washed first, then the genitals, the head, the right and the left side of the body and eventually the entire body is lightly rubbed with the solutions.

Three washes are performed with each solution and all together there are nine ablutions. For most Iranians today three washes, one with each solution is the common practice. In the end all body openings, such as ears, nostrils and even genital areas, will be blocked with cotton balls. Specific prayers are said and finally the body washer repeatedly asks Allah to forgive the dead for whatever sins the deceased might have committed. All clothing worn by the dead is normally donated to the body washer.

The rituals were a lot more detailed until the 19th century, but presently they are simplified. For example, it was customary to place fresh sticks from a date tree or pomegranate under the arms of the deceased believing the dead could hold on to them for support once questioned by the two spirits Nakeer and Monker. Or, if wealthy, they would put a semi precious stone like agate with panj tan prayers carved on it under the deceased tongue. Muslims believe that the name of their saints will protect them. It is quite common to have five names (panj tan) or fourteen (14th innocents) or forty names (chehel tan) carved on semi-precious stones to accompany the dead, for protection. In this case the panj tan enabled them to answer properly once questioned by the spirits.

The five are the most venerated of all Shi’ite characters and include Prophet Muhammad, Ali, Hassan, Husayn and Fatima. With extremely pious Muslims always participating at Muharram mourning for Imam Husayn, the handkerchief used to wipe their tears was tied around their forehead to indicate to the spirits that they have shed tears for Imam Husayn. With females a prayer bead from Karbala was placed around her neck to show the spirits that she has been a good Shiite and has mourned for Imam Husayn.

Once washed, dried and purified the body is placed on a large white cotton cloth called kafan. With the rich the material is imported from Kerbela. In the past, Bord e Yamani, an expensive version of kafan made in Yemen, was favoured by the wealthy. However, this item is hard to find now and most people use the regular cloth. Smaller pieces of the same material will be used to wrap around the lower legs, cover the eyes, the lower abdomen from belly button to knees, and to cover breasts if female. Then the whole body will be covered with kafan. Both ends will be tied with ropes before placing in the coffin. The kafan is never sewn and it is regarded as a sin to tie the ends by sewing. After the deceased is washed and wrapped in the white cloth (kafan), either two or four males carry the dead. The body is taken to the coffin but will not be placed in it; instead it will be put down on the ground. They repeat the act three times before eventually placing the body in the coffin on the fourth attempt. The gesture symbolizes the deceased refusal to leave his earthly life behind. Verses from the Quran are recited at all times and every few minutes everyone shouts, ‘there is no god but Allah’ (La elaha ela lah). It is regarded a blessing to touch the coffin and help carrying it. So it is quite expected for total strangers to participate and carry the coffin for a short while.

If segregation of sexes is practiced, women do not participate in the funeral of their male relatives. Most modern Iranians do not observe the segregation any more. Dressing in black is an obligation and the close relatives will follow this dress code for 40 days and sometimes even for a whole year. Historical evidence indicates that until the 11th century white and blue, were commonly used as mourning colours.

Sultan Massoud Ghaznavi mourned major deaths by dressing in white. While Ghaane, a major poet, remarks about an artisan refusing to colour some material in blue mentioning this is a mourning colour and he cannot do that for the time being. With most Iranians, after the 40th day an elderly member of the family changes from black into a different colour. This signifies that the rest can stop wearing black. Some will do this after the anniversary (sal) depending how close they were to the deceased. Until the 19th century, with the wealthy, the oldest family member sent dress fabrics in colors other than black to mourners indicating the end of the mourning. Coloring hands and feet with henna and changing colors out of black after going to a public bath with friends and relatives was the most common way of signaling the end of the grief period.

The time of the death is important. If the person dies early, during the day, the body will be taken to the local mosque or to the appointed cemetery to be washed and prepared. However if the person dies late at night the body will be kept at home with lights on or candles burning all night, resembling the pre-Islamic traditions. It is believed that the evil spirits (Shayatin) will attack the dead if left in darkness. The holy book, Quran will be placed close or on the dead person to both protect and bless the deceased. People who are buried quickly are assumed to have been very good (savabkar) in their life and this is regarded as a blessing.

Muslims are very specific about burial sites and adherents of different faiths are buried separately. Non-Muslims are not buried along with other faiths. In most major cities in North America Muslims have created their own cemetery. However there are many people who do not observe segregation policies of this nature.

Gravediggers dig graves.  Normally, each person is buried separately. However in Iran recently because of the very high cost of grave lots, members of the same family are buried on top of each other to reduce cost. The body is taken out of the coffin placed on the ground, is lifted up three times and put down again and it is only at the fourth time that it is placed in the grave. A gravedigger or a member of the family normally is stationed in the pit to position the dead properly according to religious prescriptions. The deceased is placed on his right side facing Mecca. Under his head will be placed a brick and a raw mosaic (khesht e kham). The face will be exposed and part of the kafan covering the face will be placed under head over the brick. until recently brick walls on each side supported the grave and once the dead was placed in the grave a brick cover would be added on top of the sidewalls to cover the dead completely. Then everything was covered with soil. The high cost of such activities has forced many people to abandon such traditions. Nevertheless, those who can afford will follow all traditions.

Burials take place during the daytime only. At night a specific prayer called Namaz Vahshat (prayer of fear) is performed by close relatives to support the deceased and reduce fear of being dead and having to answer for ones deeds. The tradition is Zoroastrian in origin and is not practiced in this manner by other Muslims. At all times the body and the grave should face Mecca (Ghebleh). The graves should not be marked as instructed by the scripture but most people place memorial stones with Quranic verses engraved on the stone. If there is no stone the grave top is slightly higher than the surrounding grounds. It is regarded blissful to touch the grave soil and spread a handful of soil over the grave, representing the notion of from dust to dust. Rose water is always sprinkled on the grave.

Participants would recite prayers at all times and there are always professional pray readers around who would recite and perform prayers for a set fee. One common verse that is recited repeatedly means; ‘one always returns to Allah and ends with him’ (En alaheh Rajeona) and the other one is called Fatehah. The memorial service ‘khatm’ (the end) is on the third day (reminiscent of Zoroastrian tradition). Everyone who knows the deceased or the family attends the ceremony. Males and females are normally seated separately. Male priests (Mullahs) will recite verses from Quran and condolences are made to the survivors of the deceased. Weeping, crying and other expressions of sorrow are displayed, encouraged and expected. Candles are lit, ‘halva’, a sweet paste made with flour, sugar and saffron is served, along with, tea and dates during the gatherings.

Modern Iranians, particularly the ones living outside Iran, have introduced some changes. It has become fashionable to play pre-recorded tapes of poetry recitations accompanied by appropriate music at the memorial service. However this is only practiced by very modern Iranians. There may be female readers of Quran who would recite prayers and verses from Quran for an all-female audience. Traditionally however males should not hear their voices. Modern Iranians are not very restrict with such practices any more and do not observe the segregation of sexes. Alcohol is not served at any of the gatherings, however for the first time sherry and light wine with musicians playing traditional instruments are appearing with the very ultra-modern Iranians outside the country.

Traditionally rose water was and still is sprinkled around. Huge flower vases are placed in the center of the room. Today with the wealthy huge and expensive flower arrangement are placed mainly in the center or around the picture of the deceased. Small prayer books are placed around for the guests to read and participate. One of the most common prayers is see-pareh (30 pieces) it contains verses from Quran relevant to the occasion. It is a continuation of the Zoroastrian mourning practices at see-rozeh (the 3oth day, after death). Speakers will remember the deceased and a mullah is present at most memorial services. However their presence is not obligatory. Many modern Iranians prefer to have friends and relatives talk and remember the beloved. With the very religious professional readers of Quran known as Gharee are always present. They are more like singers and mix singing and reciting of Quran together. They are not accompanied by any music and the ones with good voices are in great demand for such occasions. Khatm (the memorial service) normally lasts for a couple of hours. Close friends and relatives will stay with the immediate family of the deceased. The ceremony could be in a mosque, at home or in a hotel and other places of public gathering.

The next major days are ‘Hafteh’ (7th day), ‘Cheleh’ (40th day) & one year after death (Sal). The gravesite is visited on these   occasions and at all the gathering participants will be served with special meals. Flowers will be placed on the grave and the site will be sprinkled with rose water. Rich people will give ‘Nazry’ (free food) to poor people. Such acts are regarded as good deeds (Savab) and there is the hope that the act will elevate the deceased’s status in the eyes of God.

With the death of young people black candles are burnt on the grave until the fire extinguishes itself. With the rich on the seventh day, seven of these candles are placed inside expensive crystal candelabra to produce “Haft Nour” effect or seven lights. All these traditions are suggestive of Zoroastrian concepts of the sanctity and importance of light.

If the dead is an unmarried young man of distinction or reputation in his neighborhood an elaborately decorated round fixture (like a royal crown) with many black and white candles (recently light bulbs) small mirrors, feathers (red, black and white) is placed in a high traffic area in public for seven days. Announcements about memorial service are pinned on it with pictures of the young dead man. Poetry describing tragic deaths of young men such as heroes from the famous epic Shahnameh is also added.

Such stories are very popular and are used for many occasions. The structure is called Hejleh, which is the same term used for the union of the newly wed couples on their wedding night. This item was used extensively during the war with Iraq with many dead young men to commemorate the fact that they died without ever consuming a marriage.

For hafteh, close relatives and friends visit the grave. Professional prayer readers are asked to recite prayers. Food, halva, dates, sweets will be distributed amongst the poor. Rose water is sprinkled over the grave.  There are different prayers and recitations depending whether the deceased was a male or a female. With males recitations will include male heroes such as Imam Husayn or Imam Reza. With females it includes narrations dedicated to Fatima, Prophet Mohammed’s daughter. All visits to the graveyards should end before sunset a remainder from the Zoroastrians past.

The next visit will be on the 40th day, in the same manner as the last one. Most people prefer to have the gravestone placed on this day. They believe that the grave has sunken enough and is stable by this time for the stone to be set. The next communal visit to the graveyard is on the anniversary of the death. The rituals are similar to the previous visits.

Many believe that visiting the grave on Fridays is a good deed and if close by, the family members will visit the site on this day. The immediate family members of the deceased do not participate at joyful occasions from 40 days to a year. Weddings for such members are postponed until after the anniversary of the death.

Iranian version of Shiite Islam introduced a new dimension into the death rituals i.e. the martyrdom. Imam Husayn’s fatal journey at Kerbela and Ali’s assassination in Kufa has made martyrdom the most important communal mourning ritual. Imam Husayn’s martyrdom is mourned in the month of Muharram. While Ali’s death is mourned in the month of Ramadan. The two will be discussed in detail in the section describing Muslim rituals, festivals etc.

In summary, the rituals of death in Iran like all other cultures are closely related to the concepts of life after death. With the ancient Iranians, their fate in the after life was decided by their choice of good or evil.  For the Muslims adherence to the God’s commands and total submission to  ‘Allah’s will’ decides their fate. The Shiite Islam transcends death and martyrdom as a unique form of esotherism through which the true faith is re-enforced by the believers participating and re-enacting the tragic events of the martyred saints.

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Recommended Readings

Mary Boyce:
  • Zoroastrians: Their Religious Beliefs and Practices.
    London: Routledge, 2001.
  • A Persian Stronghold of Zoroastrianism.
    University Press of America; Reprint edition, 1989.
  • Liz Wilson. The Living and the Dead: Social Dimensions of Death in South Asian Religions.
    State University of New York, 2003.
  • Jamshid, Malikpur. The Islamic drama.
    Frank Cass Publishers, Portland, Oregon, 2004.
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