Cover photo for this post provided by Lameese Badr, taken at her grandfather’s funeral (Allah yarhamu – may God have mercy upon him).
I rarely cry at funerals.
Actually, I only remember crying once at a funeral, and that was because my life was in shambles at the time, and when I arrived at the funeral, the first person I was faced with was literally wailing [tabki w tawassif] and I just couldn’t handle life anymore at that moment; complete and utter breakdown ensued.
But crying is an integral part of the funeral process (mind blowing information, I know). At its most basic, it is a way for the family/friends of the deceased to release their shock and sadness at the passing of their loved one. But in many countries, including Sudan, crying signifies something beyond the mere expression of grief. It is a way to honor the dead – a testament to the deceased’s relevance, importance, significance in this world. It shows those present that this person mattered; that they were respected and loved, and that their absence will not go unnoticed.
In (traditional) theory, funerals are a support system on steroids. Neighbors bring food to the deceased’s home (a.k.a bait albika and henceforth known as ‘the funeral home’) to help feed the devastated family and the throngs of people coming to offer their condolences. Friends and acquaintances all flock to comfort and commiserate with the bereaved family. Relatives, both close and distant, stay for days and often even weeks, helping the family tend to guests and fill the space that their lost loved one has left. It is the basis and beauty of communal life.
In (modern) practice, it is the socio-behavioral manifestation of hyperbole, and a big part of the reason why I am unable to cry at funerals. If I were to describe Sudanese funerals in an image, it would be this:
Everything about the Sudanese funeral sky-writes drama. Paying your respects takes you through the full gamut of human emotion – a sped up version of the 5 stages of loss. At each funeral, you are taken on a whirlwind ride from denial to acceptance.
A good commiserator starts by putting her face on. Stand in the doorway to the funeral home and collect yourself. Pull your scarf or tobe over your head to ensure your hair is fully covered. Have tissues at the ready, either in your hand or – if you’re classy – in your purse. If you need it because (like me) you aren’t a natural crier, take a few minutes to think of something sad to get you in the zone. Then step through the front door.
When you meet a grieving family member, commence the crying sequence. There are many different styles of crying, so this part is really up to you. Some are quiet criers – silent, with a shoulder shake. This may or may not be accompanied by tears, and all depends on your closeness to the deceased and/or your skill level; experienced funeral goers are adept at crying on cue. My favorite is the whine, which comes in different levels of volume and pitch, but is almost always tearless. If you are above the age of 65, some different techniques apply to you, including placing your hand on the grieving party’s head. Try repeating the phrase “kur 3alai ya bit ummi” [my poor sister] until you feel it sufficient and your point received.
Expert commiserators enter the next level – alwasif. Roughly translated, this means ‘the description’. This is where griever and commiserator – oftentimes still in mid-hug – engage in a tennis match of sorts, with each one lobbing a description of the deceased for the other to receive and return. For example, if the deceased is male, it will go something like this:
A: Kur 3alai ya wad ummiiii~ yal sami7 yal giyaafa yal ma bitansa alnadaafa
[my poor brother~ you were handsome and a snazzy dresser and a champion of cleanliness]
B: A7ayyyy ya wad ummiiii~ yal mudeer yal wazeer yal kullak zaraafa w dameer
[oh brother~ you were a boss, you were all kindness and conscientiousness]
And so on and so forth. This in major part serves to, as we said before, honor the deceased – to showcase their qualities for the benefit of the other funeral attendees (I’m assuming, I never really understood the point). You will have noticed that these lines contain rhyme; in effect, alwasif is the poetry of mourning. Rhyme is an essential component, and the language used is beautiful and evocative. As you may have also noticed, my lines are terrible, which is why alwasif should be left to the professionals.
Once you have finished crying/describing, step away from the grieving party and take a few moments to collect yourself. Then turn back to the griever, and fulfill the Islamic portion of the condolence – alfat7a (a short prayer for the dead), and then greet them properly, because hugging and crying is not considered a greeting. Shake their hand, offer your condolences in normal sentences, and take a seat with the rest of the guests. You have successfully paid your respects, and may now enjoy a lively, laughter-filled round of catch-up with your fellow commiserators.
(You see where the drama masks come in now?)
No bait bika is complete without refreshments, and boy do we go all out! We have to keep up our rep of most hospitable people on the planet. So before the deceased is even buried, people have already begun making the next meal. Sheep are slaughtered, vegetables bought and prepped, and water is boiled for the tray after tray after tray of tea and coffee that will be served throughout the next couple of days. Traditionally, funerals lasted up to forty days. But in today’s busy world, the funeral status is generally ‘lifted’ [alrafi3] after 2 days. Still, commiserators are expected to make repeated visits to the funeral home for 7 days, and then on the 15th day (and in olden times, on the 40th. Yes, 40 days of commiseration. Because support!). Food and drink should be available and at the ready for the duration, because the last thing you want to be called when you’re grieving is cheap!
I should mention that everything described above applies to the women’s side of bait albika. Funeral homes are generally segregated, with the women inside the house (if space allows) and men in a tent in the street. I’m not really sure what happens with the men, because the extent of my interaction with that side is passing trays of food, tea, coffee and water. But from what I hear it’s a quick fat7a, and then football (soccer) and political talk. Maybe my male readers can help?