Author: Vafa ZEYNALOVA Sabira MUSTAFAYEVA Baku
It looks like the hullabaloo surrounding the recommendations that over-indulgence should be avoided at the wakes after funerals in Azerbaijan has started to die down and the process of introducing this new idea has taken on relatively precise outlines. But the need to enlighten the public regarding this issue has become even more pressing than it was before and has by no means gone away.
The death of someone close to usis inescapable, but all the same it is the inevitable grief that awaits each of us. Like each and every event, it is enveloped in numerous rituals and traditions that draw on regional, cultural, and religious bases and have taken shape over the centuries. Therefore, attending the funeral of a close member of the family is not only a tribute of respect to the deceased, but is a kind of social act. But over the course of time the bases and original reasons for this ritual have somehow been forgotten and erased from our memory. Against this background the wakes that are familiar to many people with the indispensable tea, halva [Eastern sweetmeat made of ground nuts or seeds], pilaf and, it must be owned, the meetings and socialising of relatives and acquaintances of others, who have not seen each other for a long time,has become an ostentatious, sumptuous gathering.
A recommendation, a suggestion
In order to put an end to such manifestations, the authorities have recommended that such splendid events should be avoided at which the tables are not only heaped high with the customary dishes, but an extremely large assortment of dishes, which are usually found on festive occasions, and even delicacies. It has been proposed that wakes should be limited to drinking tea with sugar, halva and dates. But like many innovations this recommendation has given rise to an extremely stormy public outcry, as a result of which some executive bodies are demanding that the administration should intervene.
According to the media, in their fervour representatives of the local authorities and the police have been calling upon people during the wake and prohibiting them from preparing hot dishes for the funeral banquet. In a number of cases they even confiscated the ready-made food from the grieving family, in other words doing"good" ["ehsan"]. Inevitably, a fair question arises: what right do the representatives of the bodies of executive power have to intervene in the purely family issues of the country's citizens?
Yes, the authorities have recommended that people should not arrange gatherings at wakes with sumptuous gastronomic delights. But one would think that such a recommendation should be of a didactic and evolutionary nature and not a compulsory, revolutionary one. The latter undoubtedly gives rise to certain misconceptions and social discontent. So, what have we got today?
What the public thinks
According to a survey carried out by the well-known "Raya" sociological centre, the majority of Baku's residents support the recommendation that wakes should be more modest, regarding it as inappropriate that the tables should be laden with food to excess. But there are nuances in this. Some of the respondents noted that this recommendation should be implemented in a well thought-out and lawful manner and that the arbitrary behaviour of the officials was completely inappropriate. A small percentage believe that the state should not intervene in the purely family process of funerals and wakes for the deceased. To judge by the reaction of the population, the presence of excessively large amounts of food at wakes is perceived as being a negative phenomenon. But we really are talking about excessive amounts, for example, of bananas, pineapples and even fish!
What is actually happening is the following: there are known to be a number of organisations operating in the city, to be more exact, in special premises where wakes are held, where the ritual services are provided. Some of these organisations are under the jurisdiction of the municipality. According to the survey carried out by the "Raya" monitoring centre, those representing the relatives of the deceased who were interviewed advised against excesses and said that the mullah should refuse to attend the sumptuous events that have become customary.
The picture is quite different in the funeral premises attached to the mosque. Here no restrictions are envisaged in carrying out the events; it is done just as the client wishes. The attitude to inviting the mullahs is tackled in just the same way.
The situation in the regions needs to be dealt with separately. It is no secret that a considerable part of our country's population is concentrated in Baku. Correspondingly, there is much greater freedom. The same is true when it comes to funerals. The long-standing traditions, which have become less prominent in the conditions of the metropolis, are still strong in the districts just as before. The procedures for funerals and wakes are followed in just the same way as in the past; everyone in the village attends the funeral and the deceased's burial is a communal affair. Naturally the wakes there are not a tribute to vanity, but a real tribute of respect to the memory of the deceased. When taking into account the fact that the people in the regions are not nearly as well off as the townsfolk, there is no way that the zeal of the officials representing the executive power can be explained from a rational point of view.
"We recently held a wake for my father. As is customary, he was buried in the district where he was born," a Baku resident recounts. "We had a fairly modest meal with the traditional pilaf; we put up a tent in the courtyard, since there were a lot of relatives who had come from the regions. But a representative of the executive authority arrived, who took the whole of the pilaf without even asking and threatened to fine the mullah 1,000 manats, because we were breaking the law. But there is no law like that, just a recommendation! We tried to object, saying that the relatives had come from a long way away, so we could not let them go hungry. But they did not even listen to us. This is just another instance of the arbitrary behaviour of the officials!" the victim complained. Yes, you cannot refer to him as anything other than a victim, since the unceremonious intervention in the life of citizens can only be regarded as unjust.
Intervention pure and simple
It is interesting that the authorities' official position on this issue is cardinally different from the actions of the officials on the spot. Thus, not long ago, Mubariz Qurbanly, the chairman of the State Committee for Work with Religious Organisations, stated that there is no ban on organising wakes in the country. He said that it is a question of avoiding waste when organising wakes. "In this connection, we have already made our recommendations, and they are not contrary to the statement circulated by the Spiritual Administration of Muslims of the Caucasus. It takes into account the specific customs of each region, the opinions of the elders, the intelligentsia, the religious figures, the akhunds [notable persons] and the mosques' imams," Qurbanly noted. According to the State Committee's head, certain progress has been made in this direction and efforts on the spot were producing results. He stressed that the State Committee and the Spiritual Administration of Muslims of the Caucasus were agreed on this issue. "The public is opposed to excessively wasteful practices not only at wakes, but at weddings too. This warning is not a compulsory measure and is only of a recommendatory nature," Qurbanly asserts.
The State Committee head thereby acknowledged that some citizens had been faced with a ban on organising funeral repasts. "We are not opposed the organisation of wakes, but against the excessive waste involved in conducting them," Qurbanly noted, thereby stressing that the flagrant intervention in this sensitive issue by certain officials was impermissible.
According to a number of news' websites, the minister of internal affairs, Ramil Usubov, had to intervene in the matter personally and issue a warning to representatives of the bodies of law and order who are intervening in the organization of wakes.
"The Orient is a delicate matter"
If something like this happened anywhere else, except Azerbaijan, which is known to be part of the oriental world, all this would be much easier. It is because the expression "The Orient is a delicate matter" is used precisely when organising wakes.
You cannot cut national traditions right off, which have taken shape on top of one another like strata of the times consisting of various complicated characteristics, such as everyday life, the character of a people, their emotional state and the ethnic and psychological traits of a nation. Religion does not play such a major part here as the mentality that is taking shape in the process of the temporary upbringing of a people and the acquisition by them of experience of life.
You see, what a European perceives as normal, may seem absurd to an Azerbaijani because a members of different nations are brought up in different cultural environments. Focussing precisely on this national experience, the aqsaqals (elders) say: "Since time immemorial, immediately after a person close to you has passed away, people have had to busy themselves with organising a three-day or seven-day wake, in order to take their minds off their grief among other things, so that they did not become overwhelmed by grief. Just imagine what would have happened if people did not have to busy themselves with organising the wake. Probably many of them would have started to put ashes on their heads. It makes one wonder whether the immutable ethnic truth lies in this, which is incidentally in no way in contradiction to the religious premise that one should not give oneself up to grief and despondency for long."
In general, the majority of the population are happy with the new ideas and consider them helpful in limiting luxury. But it would not hurt for politicians to think about the way in which new ideas are introduced, and, what is most important, to monitor how they are being implemented. You see, it is hardly likely that you can change the way that people think by taking others' pilafs off their tables. Moreover lengthy educational work will at least help in cutting down the expenditure on wakes by those strata of the population who, according to their national traditions, spend every single penny, just to give the deceased a worthy funeral and not become the object of gossip among those attending the wake.
How much does a burial plot cost?!
Moreover, in the opinion of those asked, the bodies of local authority should take a radical stand on the allocation of burial plots in the cemetery, where market relations are clearly flourishing. In all graveyards, which are essentially state-owned land, a major illegal and fairly lucrative business has been organised by speculators: the price of a burial plot, depending on its proximity to the city centre, varies from 800 manats to 16,000 manats. It makes one think that a hard-line, principle-based stand needs to be taken on this issue, one that abolishes the prices of burial plots in the cemetery. The Spiritual Administration of Muslims of the Caucasus has even issued a fatwa [religious decree], which refers to the sale and setting of prices on burial plots in the cemetery as un-Islamic.
In accordance with Islam
According to theologians and the concepts of orthodox Muslim theologians, a wake should not last for more than three days. True, this is not set out in the Qoran itself, but there are many authentic Hadiths mentioning this. As far as the fortieth day, regarded as holy by many, is concerned, according to theologians, this goes back to pre-Islamic customs. On the whole, according to the Hadiths, showing excessive emotion is banned, since it is believed that death occurs by the will of Allah and life is only a temporary everyday state in preparation for real life in another world, so manifesting great grief shows you are opposed to the will of Allah.
According to Shariah law, sumptuousness wakes are incidentally not a good thing either; it is not those close to the deceased who prepare the feast, but on the contrary, those around them who should help.