Friday, March 25, 2011

A Space for Grief

Today we learned about the ceremonies and rituals that surround the loss of a loved one here in Kyrgyzstan.  I wish, especially for the friend and co-worker of ours who lost her father last week, that we never would have had to learn about them in a real-life situation. 

Today the school hired a marshuka to take some of the staff to Elnura's home.  And there, sitting around a table loaded with salads, dried fruit, horse meat, fried chicken, tea cups, sugar, bread, sweets, with plov to follow, Peter and I learned of the customs.  Here is what we learned.

The burial occurs 3 days after the death.  During those three days, a yurt is constructed outside the home.  The body lies in the yurt for three days.  The yurt is filled continuously by wailing daughters, wives, sisters, female friends.  Men sit outside of the yurt.  On the third day, men take the body to be buried.  Every man present adds a shovelful of dirt.

There are several death anniversaries that are observed- 3 days after death, 7 days after death, 40 days after death and one year after death.  In some places, it is traditional that every Thursday for an entire year the family hosts a gathering where people come and talk about life.  At this time, people are invited to gather with the family, who provide tables full of food, like the one we sat at today.  When people gather, the eldest man puts on a Kulpak (a traditional Kyrgz hat - tall, like the ones we brought home) and reads or recites a specific passage from the Koran.  At one point during the reading you hold your hands together, palm up and open in front of you.  Then when the reading ends you "wash" your hands over your face and they end in a position of prayer.  The same thing occurs at the end of the gathering.  For at least a week after the death, the family hosts a number of gatherings, all with lots of food.  A horse is slaughtered out of tradition, and also because it provides a good amount of meat.

Those who come to the burial or the gatherings traditionally bring money to the family.  Many families are very careful to write down how much they were given by whom.  The family then seeks to, or is expected to, give that same amount back on a similar occasion  (or a more joyful one).

All in all, I am intrigued by these customs.  The death anniversaries and the Thursday gatherings seem to me to be a healthy way of recognizing that life is different, and always will be.  It provides a reason for the community to get together and remember or support the family.

On the other hand,  at our gathering today, Elnura and her sister were so busy serving us it didn't feel like we were there to support them in any way.  They had to work hard all day to prepare the food for us, and then would have a lot of work to do after we left!  While we were there, they were giving us new plates when we needed them, refilling our tea cups etc...  It was not a time to sit and ask them how they were doing.  I felt like I should've been the one making the food!

The sitting in the yurt and wailing is intriguing too.  In many parts of the U.S.  those attending funerals are afraid of showing too much emotion.  Showing sadness is not condemned, yet we all try not to show too much.  On the other hand, we have heard that wailing here is not optional for the female relatives, and the louder one wails, the more one loved the deceased.  That too could seem a little forced at times.  I suppose it would be best if, no matter which culture one is in, that one could feel the freedom to grieve as one would like.

All these customs have made me realize how much we Americans tend to try to ignore death as much as possible.  We are told (at least my family was), not to watch as the guys from Hooper and Weaver come and take the body away.  And Hooper and Weaver come within hours:  Death is unpleasant, so we push it away.  On the west coast, we plan the timing of the funeral for when all the family can arrive:  Death is unpleasant, so we try to make it convenient (okay, and some people have to come from quite a distance away).  We don't have established death anniversaries:  Death is unpleasant, so we try to pretend it didn't happen.  Life goes on in our motto, even though a part of us is dead.


  1. I have also been learning about grief. Jesus was well aquatinted with grief, and though in this way, I do not want to be like Jesus, it is unavoidable. It also is comforting, that even God grieves.
    I think you are right, it is better to be aquatinted with it. It seems that pushing it away is our way of fearing it for ourselves. Maybe our end won't be so scary if we face it a bit more while we are living.
    Thank you for sharing this perspective, it will help me not be afraid!

  2. I just spent the last 3 hours with my deceased friend Leopoldina. She in her bed, me in her bedroom sorting and packing her belongings. I wanted her there with me, so I didn't feel alone, like I was doing something with her things behind her back. It was so peaceful and a much-anticipated ending, to see her free from pain. Her daughter from Mexico called while I was there and was distraught knowing she couldn't perform her cultural traditions of washing and dressing her body.
    For the first time today I experienced that being with someones body is not scary or uncomfortable as I'd once presumed. It was an honor to be with her both in life and in death.