x Abu Dhabi, UAEFriday 28 July 2017

Everyone has their own way of dealing with death

It is the one visitor we are sure will show up one day at our door, yet it is never easy when death finally visits your household.

It is the one visitor we are sure will show up one day at our door, yet it is never easy when death finally visits your household. I recently had a death in my family, and issues long forgotten and buried came up again, as did the issue of death itself and people's different takes on it. "She was suffering, so death came as a mercy for her," one of my relatives said of the woman who had just died after a long struggle with a terminal illness. But her children didn't take it so well, and one of them was actually angry: he felt it was unfair that his mother, a "sweet and giving lady", had to suffer so much and die in pain.

"She is a martyr, for she was a very good person and always helped everyone," one of the elders said. That triggered a heated debate among the younger crowd, and even led to an exchange of angry words about which deaths could be viewed as martyrdom and which could not. In times of war, or assassinations here in the Middle East, anyone who is killed, whether innocent bystander or directly involved, will most probably be called a martyr. There are numerous martyr posters in countries constantly plagued by wars and instability, such as the Palestinian Territories, Iran, Iraq and Lebanon: once I even wrote a story about the people and the companies that make those martyr posters.

I had a relative killed in a bombing in Lebanon two years ago, and even before I knew he had been killed I saw a poster of him as a martyr. It was a bit too much for his family, and they asked for the posters to be removed from the telephone poles and lampposts. The discussion then went off on another tangent, when the talk turned to the etiquette of funerals. Some of us thought it would be nicer if we, the visitors coming to pay our respects, brought the food, instead of expecting the family in mourning to provide. "We know it is tradition, but we should modify it to ease some of the burden on the already suffering family," one of the younger cousins said.

Then we talked about the clothing worn at these occasions. There are now specialised clothing shops for people in mourning, some of them quite fashionable, along with the paler type of make-up expected of women in mourning. Some paint their nails white, and others have that customised white scarf around the neck, while the men wear dark coloured suits. At some Gulf country funerals there is a special sewn-in white outfit like a long traditional dress with elaborate white flowers embroidered along the seams.

It is important to remember that in Islam the actual burial is only the first stage in mourning, while in Christianity the burial is the final step in mourning the death of a loved one. So the difference in the rituals perhaps fosters a different attitude to death. For instance, both my grandmothers are widows, yet their take on the deaths of their husbands is very different. "He died a martyr as he fought for his country and died for a cause," my Middle Eastern grandmother said once about the death of my grandfather. While my European grandmother views the death of her husband, who was also killed, as "something that is part of life, some people know when it will come, others do not. It is nothing to be feared, but the end of a book called life," she would say.

As I said, it is never easy and so people accept death on their own terms. Another aspect that is difficult to discuss is the inability of some people to cry over the death of a loved one. At my relative's funeral there was one family member who just couldn't cry, and brought upon herself a whole barrage of criticism and speculation (as if she needed any more stress in her life). When the portrait of the deceased was passed along the room, as is the tradition in some families, she couldn't cry when she saw it. Instead she decided to read the Quran quietly in the corner for the soul of her relative. But people at the funeral would not give her peace and kept talking about her strange, "insensitive" behaviour.

It seems like in any group gathering there is the problem of gossip and judgments. I just wish people would keep their opinions to themselves in places of mourning, for it is definitely not a place for political or social discussion. After the praying, paying of respects, and catching up on family matters, the family in mourning are left alone with their grief, and that is when it really gets hard.

It is when most of the guests have left that you get to hear a personal story about the person who has just passed away, like her wedding day as retold by the widower, or the first time she danced tango, or even her favorite movie. That is when I like to be there, just to listen, and remember. @Email:rghazal@thenational.ae