Death is Something to be Celebrated and Welcomed, Not Feared; An Evening at a Muslim-Iraqi Wake (TheByteWeek Issue 11)

Its not often that I document momentous occasions, though I’ve noticed that when I do, the event is usually culturally based; my recent trip to Vietnam, for instance, had me attending a Vietnamese wedding. These events allow for a global perspective, and a sense of human unity, because they’re important events marking growth and maturation. The wedding was the beginning of a completely new chapter in the lives of the bride and groom, and their families, and I was very lucky, and honoured, that they would allow a complete stranger into a very personal event.

Momentous occasions, however, are not always filled with joy, life, and mirth, and with the case of death, are often sombre, serious affairs that require control and tact on the part of the guests. Funerals, in this way, are quite lifeless, and the mere act or presence of happiness seems odd, inappropriate, and entirely tactless. In a sense, death is often the sole unifying event that can bring people together, and alienate them, simultaneously; while some may marry, and others not, everyone dies, regardless of age, race, gender, belief, or opinion.

Death is the ultimate release from pain and suffering, and is the single most powerful and meaningful event in any individual’s life. In every sense of the word, death is the culmination of decades of grievances, successes, disasters, tragedies, joys, and moments of life. These were the thoughts that occupied my mind as I entered the hall where the wake for a Muslim Iraqi man was being held; death is something we should celebrate, something we should accept, and something we should welcome, not something we should fear or tantalize.

The man had died of a long approaching illness, and was survived by his wife, and two daughters; a separate series of services were held in Iraq and Jordan, and one of the daughters (who lives in Canada with her husband) had returned to perform a final service for all those who hadn’t had the opportunity to pay their respects in the Middle East. I must confess that my expectations for the event were largely fuelled by images I had seen in pictures, and on television and film; having never been to any form of funeral or wake, I was expecting the colloquial North American service, with the grieving surrounded by friends and family, together in remembrance of a fallen friend.

What awaited me inside the hall was completely different from what I had in mind.

The hall was divided between the men and women (something I only speculated on, and something that was later confirmed to be traditional in Iraq) with seats on both sides of the room. Entering, my companions and I were divided based on gender, and I was sent to sit with the men who had begun to recite a verse in unison; they weren’t speaking, but were mouthing or whispering with their hands in front of them, with their palms facing up. I noted that the gesture resembled a person using body language to ask “Why?” but I later realized that they were holding up an imaginary Koran, and were “Reading and reciting” the verse from it; this was in stark contrast to the women, whom I noted were actually praying from a physical Koran.

For some reason or another, I didn’t receive the traditional salutation that all the other men received, but was instead given a handshake and a pat on the back. Sitting in the front row, next to some of the older men, I learned that when a man enters the wake, all the men are expected to recite, whisper, or mouth the verse that I noticed when I entered, perform the reading (or “Why?”) gesture, wipe their faces, raise their hands and say “May Allah be with you.” This custom, contrarily, is not true for women, for a reason that no one could explain; the women shrugged it off as another thing for the men, and the men simply knew that it was something that was always done, and something that was accepted and known.

Having no one else to talk to, I sat down in silence, and allowed the gravity of the situation to overpower me, and in doing so, noticed that the women had a different arrangement entirely. Their seating plan was circular, forming around the grieving daughter in a concentric pattern, with those emotionally closest sitting next to her. Furthermore, the women were praying from several Korans, and seemed far closer, emotionally. I surmised that this was due to the deceased himself; the man was the father of the daughter, and it made sense that she would receive more “Attention” than her husband. Later I would also learn that grieving women are expected to do so for seven days, while men only grieve for three. Once again, there seemed to be no explanation and, being a guest I didn’t press the matter further.

I simply sat down, and observed, noting that, had I not seen the Canada Post van driving on the street, and the faint glimpse of the Shopper’s Drug Mart across the road, I could have been in Iraq. The customs were identical and were entirely unchanged, and each member of the gathering understood that; for a moment, I noticed that the husband’s expression grew morose every time he looked in his wife’s direction, and it occurred to me that it was possible that maintaining tradition wasn’t as important as making sure his wife was dealing with her emotions as much as everyone around her.

In this regard, I was unable to remain objective; the separation between male and female did little to hide the fact that couples were separated, as well as entire families since young children were also separated based on gender. It seemed incredibly counter-productive to hold an event meant to honour the spirit of a passed friend and family member, and then proceed to dichotomize the entire group. Immediately I recognized and understood that it was a cultural point that I would need to accept; regardless, the audacity of the disjoint remained in my mind until dinner, when the two groups finally united to eat.

Of course, the daughter and her husband weren’t very hungry, and everyone else seemed more than ready to socialize and move on from their period of mourning. It crossed my mind again that this was how death should be treated; it shouldn’t be shunned, or feared, but accepted and welcomed. It should be something to look forward to, not something to avoid with great terror.

Then I noticed the picture of the deceased, and his grieving daughter next to it.

It was the first time that I got a clear look at either the deceased father, or the very living daughter. She was distraught, honestly, and seemed serene and calm despite her red eyes revealing that she had been crying earier. Looking at the large picture frame, wreathed in white flowers, with three lit candles in front of the image (one for each immediate family member he had left behind, I assumed), I realized that, to me, this was the only proof that he lived; a black and white portrait of the man in a suit, and his grieving daughter, who took turns at being quiet, and grievous were the only visible legacies the man had left. Momentous occasion or not, culturally based or not, Iraqi or Canadian, it was enough to humanize anyone, and everyone else was enjoying the very tasty dolma, and the even tastier hummus.

Ultimately, death is something to be welcomed and celebrated. It really is something to look forward to, and it is a release from illness, misery, and suffering. Death is the universal finality that every individual travels towards and, ultimately, through. Death is the ultimate release, for those who die, of course.

For those who are touched by the death of another, for those who feel death take away a father, or a mother, a son, daughter, sister, brother, friend, uncle, aunt, or anyone else, death feels and looks like the worst catastrophe, and most pointlessly devastating experience that anyone would venture towards, because it is the worst catastrophe, and the most pointlessly devastating experience that anyone would venture towards. Death is painful, rude, abrupt, thorough, and instantaneous, in every conceivable sense, and in every possible derivation.

It was as I left the hall, together again with my companions, that I learned that the father had been suffering for years from an illness and that his death, in the most literal sense was a release from the pain he had been experiencing. Despite this fact, I don’t think anyone had the heart to tell his daughter that his death was an end to his suffering, especially since his loss will last, hurt, echo, and resonate for the rest of her life. I still believe that death is life’s greatest positive, and should be welcomed, not scorned, but only under the right circumstances.

Regardless, even I must have respect for the dead.

As always, this has been your Admin, the Avid Blogger; comment, subscribe, and criticize, and DO remember! Always look on the BYTE side of life!

-EK

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