The Washington Post
Making an Exit: From the Magnificent to the Macabre---How We Dignify the Deadby Sarah Murray
Thoughtful, amusing, and provocative, Making an Exit will transform the way you look at life's last passage. Because, as Murray discovers, death is, for many, not an ending but the start of something new.
Author and journalist Sarah Murray never gave much thought to what might ultimately happen to her remains--that was, until her father/p>/b>/i>/i>… See more details below
Thoughtful, amusing, and provocative, Making an Exit will transform the way you look at life's last passage. Because, as Murray discovers, death is, for many, not an ending but the start of something new.
Author and journalist Sarah Murray never gave much thought to what might ultimately happen to her remains--that was, until her father died. While he'd always insisted that the "organic matter" left after a person takes their last breath had no significance, he surprised his family by setting down elaborate arrangements for the scattering of his own ashes. This unexpected last request prompted Murray to embark on a series of voyages to discover how our end is commemorated around the globe--and how we approach our own mortality.
Spanning continents and centuries, Making an Exit is Murray's exploration of the extraordinary creativity unleashed when we seek to dignify the dead. Along the way, she encounters a cremation in Bali in which two royal personages are placed in giant decorative bulls and consigned to the afterlife in a burst of flames; a chandelier in the Czech Republic made entirely from human bones; a weeping ceremony in Iran; and a Philippine village where the casketed dead are left hanging in caves. She even goes to Ghana to commission her own fantasy coffin.
The accounts of these journeys are fascinating, poignant, and funny. But this is also a very personal quest: on her travels, Murray is seeking inspiration for her own eventual send-off.
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A TEAR JAR IN IRAN
As I step out of the car, I’m struggling to adjust the head scarf I’ll be wearing for the next two weeks. Gravel crunches beneath my feet and my breath turns to white vapor in the sharp air of a bright January morning. It’s my first day in Iran and Maryam, my guide, is taking me around some of Tehran’s museums and palaces. Sprawling out from the foot of the Alborz Mountains, the city feels a little like Eastern Europe before the fall of the Soviet Empire. The colors are muted, the cars are beaten up, and faceless concrete blocks have appropriated sites once occupied by elegant mansions. But in a nineteenth-century Qajar dynasty villa, the Glass and Ceramic Museum offers a flavor of the old Tehran. Its delicate brickwork façade blends traces of European rococo with the courtly geometric details of a Persian palace.
Inside are artifacts from distant civilizations—the Achaemenids, Parthians, and Sassanians. Maryam, who has a degree in art history and a passion for Persian culture, knows the collection well. Born in Tehran, she speaks immaculate English with an accent picked up from television and from the many American tourists she’s accompanied on trips around her country. Like many younger Iranian women, she interprets the Islamic dress code loosely where she knows she can, covering herself modestly in the required knee-length manteau, pants, and head scarf. But rather than swathing herself in the dull black or brown worn by most Iranians, she usually dresses in her favorite color—turquoise—and wears a large pair of wraparound sunglasses.
When it comes to Persian art, it’s the unexpected details Maryam loves. As I gaze at a set of decorated plates, she explains that the almond-shaped eyes of the figures depicted on them are the legacy of a wave of Mongol invaders who barged in from the east on horseback in the thirteenth century, razing towns and villages to the ground, killing even the dogs in the slaughter. It was one of Iran’s most violent periods of history, yet Persian artists continued depicting the eyes of their invaders long after they’d left, creating a new tradition from the detritus of violence and upheaval.
Amid the cabinets of exquisite glasses, bowls, and plates, something catches my eye. It’s a glass vase with a bulbous base and a narrow sinuous neck that twists upward toward the rim, where an oval flowerlike opening resembles a small ear trumpet. Maryam sees me admiring this strange and beautiful object. “Can you guess what it is?” she asks. I shake my head. “It’s a tear jar,” she says. “It was used by women while their sweethearts were away at war. They’d collect teardrops of sadness as a gift for them on their return.” Ah, yes, that makes sense—looking again at the little flowerlike opening, I can see it’s shaped to fit over an eye.
Capturing and storing tears is an idea that seems quite remote from the culture in which I grew up, where expressions of sorrow tend to be muted or even suppressed. Yet in many countries, self-control is absent from the process of grieving. We’ve all seen television coverage of parts of the world in which the bereaved mourn their dead in an unrestrained display of emotion, whether it’s crowds of ululating Turkish women in the aftermath of an earthquake or Iraqi mothers shrouded in black, rocking back and forth in vociferous grief after losing a family member to a suicide bomb. And it’s hard to forget the extraordinary scenes of emotional public grief that followed the death of the Ayatollah Khomeini in 1989. Loud, unself-conscious, and highly public, these kinds of laments give visual and vocal shape to mourning.
To get a glimpse of powerful ritual laments, I’ve come to Iran during Muharram. This holy month commemorates the martyrdom in AD 680 of Imam Husayn, grandson of the Islamic prophet Muhammad. Culminating in the sacred day of Ashura—the day on which, centuries earlier, Husayn was killed in battle—this is Iran’s most important religious holiday. It’s not a joyous occasion, but a time of intense sadness, when Iranians get together for a period of collective mourning.
Of course, unlike the anguish captured on TV newscasts, the mourning here will be for an individual who died many centuries ago. Moreover, the weeping and acts of penance performed for Husayn and his family are inextricably bound up with deeper bonds uniting Shi’a Muslims across the globe. But while the lamenting ceremonies won’t be the same as the grief you might see at a funeral, I want to get a sense of a culture where mourning is embraced, not hidden away.
* * *
The man Iranians weep for every year at Ashura died in the Battle of Karbala (now a city in Iraq) after leading his small band of family and followers in a march across the desert to seize Kufa, a city ruled by Yazid, who was said to be flouting the teachings of Islam. Before reaching the city, a group of soldiers surrounded Imam Husayn and his men, cutting off their water supplies, subjecting their families to terrible thirst. After several days of bitter fighting, Husayn, his family, his followers, and their relatives lay dead on the battlefield. Husayn’s death, considered to be a martyrdom, was a critical moment for the Shi’a movement, heralding the separation of the Sunni and Shi’a branches of Islam.
Iranians know the story of the battle by heart. It’s been told to them since they were children. Yet, every year, they mourn Husayn’s martyrdom and remember his death with great outpourings of grief—as if he’d died only yesterday.
Ceremonies and activities, even civic decorations, are designed to promote weeping. In theaters around Iran, ta’zieh, or history plays, re-create the battlefield scenes with elaborate costumes, male-only casts, live animals, and audiences who are encouraged to cry at the most poignant moments in the performance. On streets and in religious halls, people watch lamentation ceremonies in which groups of men stand together, slapping their arms hard against their chests in powerful rhythms as they shout out Husayn’s name. In public places, posters depict his riderless horse weeping for its lost lord and water gourds spurting with blood. Fountains are filled with dye so that they, too, appear to be running with blood.
Until recently in Iran, men marked this occasion by whipping themselves with barbed chains or blades—popular images in the Western media because of the high drama and bloody nature of the ceremonies. This practice was banned in Iran several years ago (although it continues in other countries and secretly in parts of Iran). In a new penance tradition, mourners give blood during Muharram, and instead of blades, men beat their backs with clusters of chains attached to wooden handles. In mournful street processions moving to the slow rhythm of drums, chain clusters rise up in unison before falling back heavily onto the shoulders of their owners. Even young boys join in using child-sized bunches.
I get a taste of what’s to come on my second day in Tehran, as Maryam and I stroll through the Grand Bazaar, the ancient market in the city center. This is a place that’s usually alive with activity—in open-fronted stores beneath nineteenth-century brick arches, women in chadors haggle with traders over the price of a pound of mutton and small boys run around with trays of hot tea, dodging boxes of dried fruit and stacks of china plates.
Today, though, the storefronts are shut. The cobbled streets are quiet. Draped across the majestic arches of the bazaar are green and black velvet banners with prayers and eulogies dancing across them in elegant Persian script. Some have photographs pinned to them in memory of deceased former merchants.
Up ahead of us something’s going on. A group of old men has gathered around a bearded man who’s singing into a microphone. The song, explains Maryam, is a lament for the death of Husayn and the martyrs of Karbala. The men shuffle their feet, hang their heads, and add their quavering voices to the sorrowful chants of the leader. Theirs is the weary melancholy of the older generation. Some rub their hands into their eyes. Others cross their arms and tap their chests gently with the palms of their hands, in the ancient Middle Eastern gesture of mourning.
Meanwhile, outside the bazaar, passions are mounting. Heavily amplified chanting, drumbeats, and the shouts of young men wielding chains penetrate the bazaar’s deep brick walls. Large loudspeakers send laments echoing down the cobbled alleys. Maryam translates the lyrics of one for me: “I will mourn for you even if you cut off my head.”
* * *
Until recently, when reality TV swept trembling voices and watery eyes onto British shores, stoicism characterized my countrymen’s response to death. You found it in the stiff upper lips of the musicians on board the Titanic, performing on deck until the moment the ship sank into the ocean, or the quiet heroism of Captain Titus Oates, one of Robert Falcon Scott’s fated 1910 Antarctic exploration team. In a bid to help save his colleagues, Oates headed out of the tent into a blizzard and certain death. His last words, recorded by Scott, were famously unemotional: “I am just going outside and may be some time.”
British reserve often triumphs over human tragedy. One friend recalls an incident that took place the day his father died. On leaving the hospital, he ran into a family friend he’d not seen for some years. After exchanging a few pleasantries, the friend inquired after his father. Exhausted and emotionally numb after weeks of watching his parent suffer the last throes of Alzheimer’s, he could think of nothing to say, except, “Actually, he’s dead.” Surprised and lost for words, the friend had spluttered, “Oh—so not so good then,” before they both exploded with laughter at the absurd exchange.
British stoicism once even became a propaganda tool. In the 1942 film Mrs. Miniver, producer Sidney Franklin wanted to help win sympathy for the Brits to garner U.S. public support for America’s entry into the Second World War. In Mrs. Miniver, a British housewife (played by Greer Garson) is unflappable, displaying fortitude in the face of disaster as, first, their home is bombed and, later, her daughter-in-law Carol dies beside her on the sitting room floor after being hit during an air raid. “Dear, won’t you try to get a little rest,” she tells her son next morning, stifling tears, as he returns from duty to see his wife’s body.
My family, at least its more senior members, comes from this tradition. When Fa’s mother died, I was a child and barely remember the day’s events, except for the tone of his voice when he answered the phone, telling me something significant had happened. There was certainly no sobbing in the house. Some years later, when a call came in the middle of a dinner party with news that my uncle Gavin had died in a car crash, Sam recalls that Fa remained stony faced, as did the dinner guests who, after his announcement, offered their condolences and quietly left.
For us Brits, disaster is met not with weeping and wailing but with pragmatism, etiquette, and control. When faced with loss, we make a pot of tea. We encourage the bereaved to “get a little rest.” At funerals and memorials, we try not to bawl, but instead weep as discreetly as we can. “She bore up well,” we say admiringly of those who remain poker-faced when their hearts are broken by loss.
We try to avert emotional displays, too. “There, there, don’t cry,” is something we’re always being told as children, instructions that seem to retain their influence over us well into adulthood. Yet why should we not cry for the loss of a dear friend or close relative? Surely it’s the most natural thing in the world?
Nevertheless, I did not weep when Fa died. For me, the worst moments came during his illness. There were the sad car rides with Sam after visits to the Joseph Weld Hospice, when talk of his approaching death seemed somehow easier to conduct from within a moving vehicle. There was the anguish of watching someone endure a pain and discomfort that could only get worse. After a year of horrors, the end came as a relief, for him and for us. But for that year, frequent, tense sighs were the way I mourned him.
* * *
It’s early evening and Maryam and I are sitting on the floor of the upper balcony of a Husseinia (a religious hall) looking across at a blaze of fluorescent light. The balcony is high up, near the roof of the building, supported on ranks of iron columns painted in a lurid green. We’re waiting for a Tasoua ceremony to begin. Tasoua means “ninth,” for this is the ninth day of Muharram, the day before Ashura, and it commemorates the eve of the Battle of Karbala. Below us, on the ground floor, a carpet-covered expanse of concrete is where a pageantry of woe will soon be taking place.
This Husseinia is in Yazd, an ancient desert city in the center of Iran, about four hundred and fifty miles south of Tehran and known for religious conservatism. Along its narrow alleys, heavy wooden double doors puncturing mud and wattle walls still have paired knockers, each making a different sound to distinguish male from female visitors and let the women inside know whether or not to cover themselves before answering. Out on the streets, women are shrouded in full-length black chadors, turning them into anonymous inky shapes, shadows casting shadows.
These shadows have become real people on the balcony of the Husseinia—cheery, chatty, gossipy women. While the men sit quietly in neat rows on the floor below, up here, everyone’s busy handing around drinks and snacks and sorting out the children. It’s an indoor picnic. The only problem is the heat. Because it’s midwinter in Iran, waves of hot air are rising from four huge cylindrical heaters on the ground floor of the hall. I’m in my thick, woolen coat, long shirt, trousers, and boots. I’m sweltering, and longing to take off my head scarf. But Iran’s dress code makes this impossible in public without censure or even arrest.
After almost an hour, with nothing happening and the temperature rising, I’m tempted to leave, but then the announcer starts talking and Maryam tells me the ceremony is about to begin. I hear a noise from the street—singing and rhythmic drumming. It’s quiet at first, but it gets louder as a troupe of men enters the hall. As they insert themselves into the spaces between the men sitting on the floor, I realize that the drumming sound is actually being made by slaps, as the performers beat the palms of their hands against their chests. They stretch their arms out and pull them in again—in and out, in and out. Slap, slap, slap.
From up here, it’s an astonishingly beautiful display, as a sea of arms rises and falls. Pale hands stand out against black clothing, creating an effect like a shoal of flying fish leaping from a deep lake or a cloud of migrating butterflies fluttering above a stormy landscape. Although the men stand close together, they never once flinch or strike each other, even as they throw their arms wide to the heavens before reining them in to meet their chests. The visual drama is heightened by the way the performers are standing—not facing the same way but positioned in all directions. They’re dancing with their arms. And through it all, there’s a slow rhythm, one found in mourning ceremonies and funeral marches of all kinds—a relentless regularity of sound that seems designed to keep the heart beating when really it wants to break.
This is a noheh, or lamentation song, and like most of the rituals taking place at this time of year, it tells of the bloody battle at Karbala. In between the lamentations, the leader calls out through a microphone, addressing the members of the holy family directly. “Come to see what has happened to your son!” he cries to Husayn’s mother. Then: “Husayn, where is your commander? Husayn, where is your sweet son Ali Akbar?”
The answer, of course, is that Husayn, his commander, Ali Akbar, and the others are all dead or mortally wounded and caked in blood, arrows piercing their hearts, limbs severed from their corpses.
Everyone in the hall knows this and has heard the cries many times before. But these direct appeals to the holy family bearing the dreadful news about relatives and kinsmen are delivered as if their deaths had just happened. The cries have a powerful effect, unifying everyone in a moment of shared grief and anger at a common enemy. Well, almost everyone—a small girl in a pink dress stands up in front of me. Grinning cheekily, she stretches her arms out and slaps them on her chest a few times, mimicking the men. She is plainly enjoying herself.
* * *
Elias Canetti, the Bulgarian-born writer, once called the Shi’a faith “a religion of lament more concentrated and more extreme than any to be found elsewhere.” Yet while the ritual mourning for Imam Husayn might be bound up with Shi’a beliefs, lamenting in Iran has deeper cultural roots. Mourning is at the heart of Persian legends and poems, which invariably end in tragic deaths that are recounted in poignant language designed to elicit tears.
In the epic Shahnameh, tenth-century poet Ferdowsi tells the history of Persia from its earliest days to the Arab conquest of the seventh century. In one part of the story, the great hero Rostam, unaware that he has a son by a princess called Tahmineh (a woman he’s not seen for many years), finds himself opposite his son Sohrab in battle. Father and son have no idea they’re fighting each other. After a single-combat struggle, Rostam delivers a fatal stab wound to Sohrab before seeing on Sohrab’s arm the bracelet he’d given the princess years earlier. He realizes, to his horror, that he’s just killed his own offspring.
The mourning for Sohrab takes on monumental proportions. Princess Tahmineh “heaped black earth upon her head, and tore her hair, and wrung her hands, and rolled on the ground in her agony,” writes Ferdowsi. “And her mouth was never weary of plaining.” Her father, the King of Samengan, “tore his vestments” in anguish. Meanwhile, the house of Rostam “grew like a grave, and its courts were filled with the voice of sorrow.”
Lamenting is enshrined in courtly Persian poetry, in stanzas awash with tears. Take the verse of a poem by Hafiz, the fourteenth-century poet from Shiraz:
My face is seamed with dust, mine eyes are wet.
Of dust and tears the turquoise firmament
Kneadeth the bricks for joy’s abode; and yet …
Alas, and weeping yet I make lament!
Or the mournful lines of eleventh-century Sufi poet and mystic Baba Tahir, who produced words such as these:
’Tis Heaven’s whim to vex me, and distress,
My wounded eyes hold ever briny tears,
Each moment soars the smoke of my despair to Heaven,
My tears and groans fill all the Universe.
Other cultures have embraced lamenting, too. During weeping rituals in Hellenistic Greece, mourners would tear at their hair and rip their clothing in movements that were violent and agonized, yet choreographed to follow melodies played on a reed pipe. The traditions have proved surprisingly long-lived. Until the mid–twentieth century, ritual laments featured in the death rites of countries as diverse as Ireland, Greece, Russia, and China. Unrehearsed yet guided by a format familiar to everyone, mourners sang weeping songs and recited elaborate poems. Words and music gave expression to the inexpressible. As Steven Feld, the anthropologist and musician, puts it, “tears become ideas.”
The trick was balancing powerful emotion with ritualized control; standardized formats with improvised content. Stylization gave room for emotion, but set boundaries for the mourners, preventing unfettered anguish from being let loose. It was a form of grief that was formulaic yet skillful in its improvisations. At times, it was extremely beautiful.
Still, it didn’t always meet with state or religious approval. After Athenian statesman Solon introduced laws curbing excessive funeral rites in the sixth century BC, only close relatives or older women could follow the body and weep at the graveside. In nineteenth-century Ireland, the Catholic Church feared that loud wailing for the dead might give the impression they’d never rise again come the Resurrection. Classing laments as “abuses,” the church made various attempts to quash them, from refusal to deliver absolution to, in one instance, using whips to force wailing women off the coffin. In Russia, Peter the Great tried to ban funeral lamenting, while the Russian Orthodox Church was as censorious of the tradition as the Irish Catholic Church. Powerful public displays of emotion were, it seems, unsettling to the authorities.
They persisted nonetheless. And usually, it was women performing the ceremonies. In some places, the ability to sing or recite ritual laments was part of a feminine portfolio of skills, along with cooking, spinning, mending, and cleaning. In her book Night of Stone: Death and Memory in Russia, Catherine Merridale explains how young Russian girls once acquired their proficiency in lamenting. “Children played funerals as readily as they played house, and little girls assisted the old women in the laying out of corpses,” she writes. “Girls were also made to learn and practise the improvisation of laments.”
In Ireland, too, women took on the task of public grieving. Their keening—improvised poems and songs—could have a dramatic effect. One nineteenth-century account describes “the deep, yet suppressed sobs of the nearer relatives, and the stormy, uncontrollable cry of the widow or bereaved husband when allusion is made to the domestic virtues of the deceased.” You might call it therapy through elegy.
Keens turned ordinary men into heroes. Arthur O’Leary, who died in 1773, was one such man—shot by a hired gun on behalf of a landowner to whom O’Leary had refused to sell his chestnut mare for five pounds, a price stipulated by a provision contained in a series of statutes known as the Penal Laws. Deeply moved by his death, his widow composed a famous keen now considered one of Irish literature’s great works.
The Lament for Art O’Leary uses stock metaphors—the tools of the keener’s trade—to establish a framework for the poignancy of the tale, creating something epic from what seems to have been an unglamorous death sparked by a quarrel over money. One stanza describes the terrible moment when Eileen O’Connell finds out about her husband’s death—through the return of his riderless horse:
My friend you were forever!
I knew nothing of your murder
Till your horse came to the stable
With the reins beneath her trailing,
And your heart’s blood on her shoulders
Staining the tooled saddle
Where you used to sit and stand.
And, after a dramatic section in which Eileen mounts the horse and races to where her husband lies dying:
Your heart’s blood was still flowing;
I did not stay to wipe it
But filled my hands and drank it.
Russian laments had a similar quality, expounding the heroic deeds of the deceased and emphasizing the suffering of those left behind. “Certain words would always recur,” writes Merridale. “Grief was always bitter, for instance, a dead son was always brave and handsome, and widows were always destined for inconsolable solitude and hard work.”
Like the noheh of Iran, traditional laments reinforce the pathos of death. Their archetypal patterns and familiar sounds seem to tell us that death is part of the rhythm of life—both ordinary and extraordinary. And by using art and artistry to transform death into a thing of beauty, they help turn the dull ache of loss into something more meaningful and, perhaps, ultimately acceptable.
Strangely enough, it was not only relatives who conducted ritual laments at funerals. Professionals could also be called in to swell the ranks. In an ancient tradition, hired mourners were paid in cash or in kind. In notes from his 1681 tour of Ireland, Englishman Thomas Dineley describes “poor mercenary howlers, who generally at Church or Church yard, encompass the next heire with an high note, who more silently laments, if he doth at all.” His words suggest that the professional mourners were there to provide enough visible grief to dignify the event—particularly when relatives seemed insufficiently moved to do it themselves.
Hiring professionals was often necessary for another reason—the emotionally exhausted state of the bereaved. “When they’re overcome with sadness, their bodies begin to weaken,” explains a seventy-year-old retired professional mourner called Li Changgeng in an interview with Chinese writer Liao Yiwu. “But for us, once we get into the mood, we control our emotions and improvise with great ease. We can wail as long as is requested.”
The point of bringing in ritual mourners was also their emotional distance from the deceased and the relatives. This was something anthropologist Loring Danforth noticed in 1979, when he was studying funeral customs in Potamia, a village in northern Thessaly. In his book The Death Rituals of Rural Greece, Danforth notes how groups of women—themselves bereaved but not close relatives—were usually present to sing laments at funerals, giving mothers, wives, and daughters a chance to do the real, unscripted sobbing. Breaks after each verse allowed those with the most intense anguish to cry out messages to the person they’d just lost.
Yet this more genuine expression of grief was only given limited voice. Eventually, these bereaved were expected to join the lament. “At a funeral in Potamia where the widow of the deceased was wildly hugging and kissing her dead husband,” Danforth writes, “her sister, in an attempt to restrain and calm her, spoke to her sharply: ‘Don’t shout like that! Sit down and cry and sing!’” The idea of public grieving, in other words, is to maintain control, not to lose it.
* * *
On the day of Ashura, the tenth day of Muharram, the mosques in Yazd are full and everyone is out on the streets. It’s a public holiday and schools and offices are closed. From community kitchens, great quantities of food are served free of charge to the faithful. Yet while some men and women are clearly mourning, Ashura is also a rare chance for social activities. I notice that many of the women shrouded in black are talking into mobile phones. Maryam translates the conversation of the young woman next to us. “She’s talking to her boyfriend,” she tells me. “She’s saying: ‘I’m on the corner of the street opposite the mosque—come over now and we can have a chat.’”
That afternoon, Maryam and I head out to a town called Mehriz, where we’ve been told a big Ashura procession is taking place. This turns out to be a variation on the religious play. Rare in a part of the world where visual representation of holy figures is usually prohibited, these performances have provided a form of social entertainment at this time of year (and have, since my trip, been banned). Here in Mehriz, the drama is being acted out on top of great big trucks. One by one, great floats lurch through the entrance gate into an open enclosure. Each new arrival elicits screams of delight from the children, while parents take photos with their mobile phones.
On top of the floats, men in medieval garb (good guys in green, bad guys in red) act out the scenes. One shows merchants haggling in the bazaar on the eve of the Battle of Karbala. In another, soldiers in brilliant costumes engage in sword fights. Husayn’s riderless horse (a real one) arrives on one of the trucks. A few moments later, there’s the evil Yazid, sitting on his throne, dressed in crimson robes and a helmet with great plumes of feathers sprouting from it. Cigarette in hand, he knocks back slugs of “wine” from a large goblet (topped up from a bottle of Coca-Cola).
There’s also lots of fake pink blood. This is put to dramatic effect on one float depicting the decapitated dead on the battlefield. Covered in white sheets, the bodies on this truck are live people whose heads are hidden beneath sheets, replaced by severed sheep’s necks from which fake blood is dripping with the assistance of a small pump.
These motor-driven tableaux vivant provide flourishes of color amid the crowds of spectators, who are mostly in black. And the carnival spirit is completely at odds with my preconceptions of Ashura as a dark and sometimes violent ritual. But, at this time of year, happiness is never very far from sadness. Seeing a Westerner in the crowd, a young teacher approaches me. In broken English and with an effort that’s deeply touching, she attempts to explain the story to me. “He was a very, very good man,” she says, with urgency in her eyes. “But they cut him (she slashes her finger across her throat) and killed him; brother, son, cousin—everybody dead. It is very sad day.”
For Shi’a Moslems, it’s the saddest day of the year, the most solemn in the mourning month of Muharram. The day of Ashura is the day when Imam Husayn and his supporters were murdered on the battlefield at Karbala. And on this day, the most important moment comes at noon, which marks the very instant Husayn succumbed to the arrows and swords that pierced his body.
In Yazd that morning, Maryam and I had participated in this moment, joining a crowd of people who’d gathered for the ceremony at the city center in front of the Amir Chakhmagh, an arched, open-fronted structure with two minarets that was once used for the performance of religious plays. Soon, members of the crowd were clapping hands to their chests and singing. From a nearby balcony, an old woman looked down on the crowd, arms crossed, patting her palms gently onto her chest in the ancient mourning gesture I’d seen used by the old men in the bazaar in Tehran. Women cloaked in black held their palms toward the heavens while a holy man wove his way through the throng, spraying everyone with rose water from a tank on his back, as if irrigating some heavenly garden where humans sprouted from the earth in place of flowers.
At midday everyone turned to face Mecca. As the crowd fell silent, I turned in the same direction and let my head hang down. I might have been in a foreign country, attending a mourning ceremony for an ancient Islamic prophet, but it was a powerful moment of sorrow. And for a brief instant, I felt as if I was attending the funeral we never held for my father.
* * *
Tears were once thought to come directly from the brain. In some ways, of course, tears of emotion do. But physiologically, it’s more complicated than that. Our lachrymal system has two mechanisms, one producing and the other draining away tears. A variety of lachrymal glands manage the different types of tears we produce, all of which contain varying concentrations of chemicals, hormones, and proteins.
We produce three types of tears—basal tears, which continuously lubricate our eyeballs to prevent them seizing up in their sockets; reflex tears, produced when foreign objects such as particles of dust get in the eye; and psychic or emotional tears, which respond to our psychological state. But if production of the first two types is relatively easy to understand, the reason for the third tear category is harder to explain.
That hasn’t stopped people from trying. René Descartes, the seventeenth-century philosopher and scientist, identified the fact that extreme emotions stimulated increased blood flow to the eyes, acting as a catalyst for the production of tears. However, as Tom Lutz explains in his book Crying, Descartes mistakenly based his assumption on principles of condensation. As hot blood came into contact with cool vapors in the eye, he surmised, the vapors were turned into tears.
William James, the nineteenth-century American psychologist and philosopher, had a theory that put the egg before the chicken. He argued that sadness was a physiological state. In response to some event, so his hypothesis went, we respond by producing tears—it’s the sensation of crying that provokes in us the emotion of sadness.
If the causal link between sentiment and tear production puzzled early scientists and psychologists, the effect of weeping was easier to understand. From ancient times, crying was considered cathartic. In Hellenistic Greece, Aristotle’s definition of tragedy used the word katharsis to refer to a calming of the audience brought about by exposure to a tragic drama and the portrayal of intense fear and pity. In other words, moving the audience to tears helped them leave the theater happier than when they arrived.
And if tears can be shown to serve a function, it’s no surprise that the great evolutionary theorist Charles Darwin wanted to find out why humans cried. In a chapter of his book The Expression of the Emotions in Man and Animals, Darwin examined the workings of tears. After covering in exquisite detail the physiological process of crying, particularly in infants, Darwin concluded that crying was a way of alleviating suffering.
The catharsis hypothesis holds true today. In a study called “Is Crying Beneficial?” Jonathan Rottenberg, Lauren M. Bylsma, and Ad J. J. M. Vingerhoets asked more than three thousand people to recall recent weeping episodes. Sixty to 70 percent of respondents reported beneficial effects, ranging from a release of tension to feelings of relief.
The explanation may be both chemical and physical. Emotional tears contain manganese, which affects temperament, and prolactin, a hormone associated with depression. It’s thought that releasing these elements through tears helps balance the body’s stress levels, relieving tension. Meanwhile, in another study, Rottenberg, Vingerhoets, and Michelle Hendriks found that the cardiovascular rates of people rose while weeping but slowed after the crying episode ended, producing a calming effect.
So if crying is good for you, perhaps we don’t do it often enough. I wonder whether this phenomenon might offer a business opportunity for an entrepreneur to found a chain of “crying halls” for collective mourning. They could feature regular performances of doleful music or heartrending stories and charge a modest entrance fee. But, I’m forgetting—we have the movies.
* * *
During his physiological examination of tears, Darwin noticed that the English “rarely cry, except under the pressure of the acutest grief,” whereas in Continental Europe, “men shed tears much more readily and freely.” What Darwin had spotted was that the way we weep differs from culture to culture—whether that’s muffling our sobs or howling wildly. So is the way we cry something we learn or does it come naturally?
The truth is, cultural conventions and spiritual beliefs play a powerful role in shaping expressions of grief, prompting some to weep in situations others might think unlikely causes for tears.
Alfred Radcliffe-Brown, an English social anthropologist, noticed this when he was in the Andaman Islands in 1906, observing that friends would wail violently together when reunited after a period of separation. He was surprised to find no difference between this type of crying, a show of joy, and the reaction of islanders to the death of close relatives.
On the other hand, some people don’t cry when you might expect them to. At funerals in central Thailand, crying is not part of the funeral ceremony, as it’s considered inauspicious for teardrops to fall on the body. In Bali, weeping at cremations is frowned on as it’s thought to prevent the spirit from reaching heaven. In Russia, women were warned not to weep too much after the death of a child, lest it damage the soul, preventing its ascent to heaven. Yet in other places, unfettered wailing is the most common reaction to loss.
I first noticed the existence of contrasting expressions of grief while watching television. On a running machine at the gym, I was staring absently at the ranks of TVs in front of me when I realized that the two screens opposite were both showing footage of people crying. On one, a young girl was talking to reporters amid subdued sighs and a few tears. On the next screen, another was bawling, unable to control her heavy sobs. I wasn’t listening to the soundtrack, but the subtitles told me these two women’s stories. The one weeping quietly was a Thai girl recalling the death of her father in the Asian tsunami. The one sobbing uncontrollably was an American on a reality TV show.
Occasionally, two styles of grief collide. Stewart Wallace, an American friend, recalls this happening at the funeral of his uncle, who died at the age of fifty-five. During the funeral, his grandmother, who came from a village in Ukraine, threw herself on the ground and started grasping at the earth and wailing violently for her youngest child. The rest of the family, who were born in America, stood around staring unhappily at the ground. “It had a ritualized quality to it,” Stewart told me. “I don’t know if it was something learned or something felt—or both. But it was pretty shocking to all of us.”
In his essay on contemporary African-American funeral customs, Hosea L. Perry describes a clash of mourning cultures that occurred after a mortally wounded teenager was admitted to a Midwestern American hospital. The boy’s relatives stood outside wailing so violently that hospital staff called the police, who sent in a riot squad to arrest them. “The hospital doesn’t understand how black people grieve,” said a community leader after the incident.
So in modern society why are we so squeamish about putting death and mourning on display? Death is a human experience that’s inevitable, universal, and inescapable. Yet we’d rather it were banished from sight. And while grieving is clearly a necessary reaction to this experience, we appear to want to hide the bereft from public view. Contemporary society has no place for traditional lamentation obsequies. Danforth notes that young Greek women of an emerging middle class “regard the singing of laments as a source of embarrassment, indicative of rural backwardness and superstition.”
In Victorian England, too, a once flourishing tradition of emotional, public demonstrations of grief eventually faded. The tradition had developed alongside Romanticism, an eighteenth-century artistic, literary, and intellectual movement, and the rise of Evangelical Christianity. In paintings and novels, the deathbed scene, depicting grieving relatives gathered in a domestic bedroom, became a popular theme. Composing lines that might have been written by the Sufi artists of Persia, British poets infused their stanzas with tears, as did Lord Byron in lines such as these, from “And Thou Art Dead, as Young and Fair”:
As once I wept, if I could weep
My tears might well be shed,
To think I was not near to keep
One vigil o’er thy bed
Public displays of sentiment were accepted, and even encouraged. “They were not shy about expressing the depth of their suffering in tears and in words,” explains historian Pat Jalland, who cites contemporary accounts describing the behavior of bereaved individuals. There was the man who, having lost his only child, became “almost frantic” and started “rolling on his bed and tearing his hair,” and George Lyttelton who, on his wife’s death in 1857, sobbed uncontrollably for days after, and wanted only to “weep and muse and pine.”
As the century drew to a close, however, the influence of Evangelicalism and Romanticism waned. Meanwhile, advances in medical science led to a sharp fall in the rate of death by disease. In the process, public and even private emotional outbursts of grief became less acceptable. For Englishmen, says Jalland, the process was accelerated “by the ethos of the public [private] schools with their cult of manliness and masculine reserve.” This masculine reserve, this stoicism, is what shaped my father’s generation in their responses to death—and perhaps mine, too.
* * *
In the early hours of August 31, 1997, the British way of death was turned on its head. All of a sudden, that notorious stiff upper lip betrayed a distinct wobble. What caused the wobble was the death of a princess. Within hours of a black Mercedes crashing into a Parisian tunnel, killing Diana, Princess of Wales, and Dodi Al Fayed, her companion, flowers started arriving at the gates of Kensington Palace, where Diana had lived. With bouquets, teddy bears, and other gifts piling up outside the palace, the nation became swept up in an extraordinary—and highly uncharacteristic—public outpouring of grief. Even Tony Blair, the British prime minister, allowed his voice to crack just for a moment in his television broadcast on the morning the “people’s princess” died.
The night before Diana’s funeral, I paid a visit to Kensington Palace. It was a warm summer evening, and the stench of rotting flowers combined with the heady aroma of scented candles and joss sticks to create an ambiance more like a temple in India than a park in Great Britain. Facing a sea of cellophane-covered floral tributes, teddy bears, photos, and handwritten signs, people sat on the ground, alone or in groups, around small personal shrines. Heads were bowed. Some wept quietly.
Early the next morning, some friends and I joined the crowds on Kensington High Street to watch the cortège pass by on its way to Westminster Abbey. The atmosphere was unlike any I’d previously encountered in England. The city had fallen silent. The air was leaden. Barely visible, the ghosts of clouds lurked in the immaculate blue of a late summer morning. The only sounds were the tolling of a church bell and a few muffled sobs from members of the crowd.
Finally, draped in the Royal Standard, the lily-laden coffin emerged from the palace gates. It advanced slowly and majestically on a gun carriage pulled by the horses of the King’s Troop and accompanied by foot soldiers from the First Battalion Welsh Guards, decked out in their scarlet livery and bearskins. Following behind were the two young princes; their father, the Prince of Wales; their grandfather, the Duke of Edinburgh; and Charles Spencer, Diana’s brother. It was a state funeral, with all the trappings of a royal pageant.
Through it all, though, the modest box carrying the body of the dead princess appeared to float above everything, detaching itself from the pomp and circumstance swirling around it as it proceeded through Central London. How strange it was, I thought with wonder as it passed in front of me, that inside that box was a person—a person who had walked, talked, laughed, cried, eaten, bathed, made love, slept, and who had, on every morning until the morning of August 31, 1997, woken to a new day.
It was the death of this person—now a body in a box—that had sent British stoicism into a tailspin. Newspaper headlines talked of “A Nation United in Mourning.” TV newscasters spoke in hushed tones. I wondered, privately, if the country had gone mad. Plenty of my friends and fellow Brits, it turned out, felt the same. A few commentators claimed the media was overdoing it (as indeed it had during Diana’s life).
Nevertheless, the change of mood in the United Kingdom during that time marked a shift in the country’s emotional history. And the spontaneous outburst of mourning across much of the nation was about more than the loss of a glamorous princess. It was also, I think, a time in which everyone felt permitted to contemplate their own personal loss; to pull those deep reserves of grief out from their hiding places. In short, the occasion gave everyone in Britain a chance to have something they’d denied themselves for so long: a really good cry.
* * *
Ironically, the Ashura ceremony I most want to see—the reciting of the majalis, or lamentation—I cannot, since I’m a woman and so barred from the main hall of the mosque, where it generally takes place. But back in my hotel that evening, I catch one on Iranian television. The camera pans across a large hall (it looks a lot more comfortable than the Husseinia Maryam and I sat in) packed full of men sitting in rows. On a stage at the front is a man dressed in a gray suit, a cape, and a black cap. Speaking in Persian, he’s recounting in detail the suffering at the Battle of Karbala and the martyrdom of Imam Husayn.
At first he speaks in solemn tones, pausing for effect from time to time. But as the story unfolds, something strange happens. The leader appears to have something in his throat. He coughs and starts blowing his nose. Soon, whimpers accompany some of the phrases he utters. Gradually, full-blown sobs are being woven into his recitation.
Meanwhile, the same thing is happening in the audience. People start sighing and murmuring. Pained expressions come across the faces of many of the listeners as they break into quiet moans, many clasping their hands to their brows, hiding their faces with handkerchiefs or shaking their heads. Shoulders shudder and some people have tears streaming down their cheeks (the camera tends to zoom in on these ones). Pretty soon, the hall is heaving with sobbing men.
I’d heard about these lamentation ceremonies, but it’s still strange to see one, particularly since the participants are all male. In societies with lamentation traditions, men are not usually the weepers. Yet perhaps that’s the point. Here is a safe space where men are allowed—even encouraged—to cry.
* * *
Curiously enough, there was one thing that would unfailingly reduce my father to tears—the sound of English church bells. I remember him telling me this many years ago. Then, going through his essays and letters, I found a description of the effect they had on him. He’d experienced this, he wrote, from an early age and interpreted it as a child’s “involuntary, and deeply emotional” response to a sound. “I soon learned to control the visible signs of emotion,” he wrote. Even so, he went on, throughout his life church bells continued to work their “emotional magic” on him, “the reasons for which I have never yet found an explanation.”
Music and mourning have always had a close relationship. Music can move us to tears even without the presence of the dead, so it’s hardly surprising that it can also help give voice to grief.
When Steven Feld was studying the culture of sound in Papua New Guinea, he noticed that the mourning songs of the Kaluli people—whose weeping-singing voices are, according to Feld, intimately connected with rainforest birds, which are considered spirits—had common features. The songs were delivered in breathy voices with “choking sounds and slight vibrato.” They were always descending in their melodic contours, and several songs could overlap, creating complex polyphonic layers of sound.
I once saw some of these musical traits at work in the performance of a Caribbean wake drumming song by Dominican singer-songwriter Irka Mateo. Accompanying herself with a small drum and a wood maraca, Mateo’s rendition started brightly with melodies rising sharply before falling again. Once more, rhythm played its part. But in addition, as the verses were repeated, her voice grew hollow, and her head sank lower over the drum. By the end of the song, a distinct breathiness had entered her singing and the performance ended in what was almost a sob, mixing music and mourning.
Toward the end of Fa’s life, it was music that turned my restrained sighs into tears. One evening shortly after returning from England—my last visit before his death, as it turned out—I was at home in New York, paying bills and filing papers. I put on a CD I’d ordered that had just arrived in the mail, a recording of Bulgarian choral singers. Halfway through the third track, “Kalimankou Denkou”—a slow wash of dissonant harmonies over which the powerful vibrato of the lead singer soars only to descend again and again—I found myself hunched over the table, tears running down my cheeks.
I let myself cry for a while. The tears seemed to be part of the music—soft and warm, like a consoling caress. My tears ended as the song drew to its quiet close, and I sighed again as I’d done often that year, but this time with breath drawn from the deepest recesses of my lungs. It was a new sigh—clear, unrestricted by tension, and one that seemed to bring with it a sense of calm I’d not felt in months. I was not in a Husseinia. This was no Irish keen or Greek funerary lament. Nor was it rehearsed or planned. But at that moment, I realized that—with the assistance of the doleful voices of the Bulgarian singers—I was performing my own mourning ceremony.
* * *
Crying might be good for you. It certainly helped me through a dark moment during my father’s illness. Still, I’m not sure I want to encourage public wailing at my funeral. Despite almost a decade in America, I can’t shake off my British discomfort at the thought of making a scene, even in death. And personally, I prefer the guidance of the old Hebrew proverb: “Say not in grief ‘he is no more’ but live in thankfulness that he was,” or the words of Henry Scott Holland, canon of St. Paul’s Cathedral, who in a 1910 essay suggested the bereaved should “wear no forced air of solemnity or sorrow” but “laugh as we always laughed at the little jokes we enjoyed together.”
I’m not the only one who feels like this. Romantic poets, tragic heroes, and dying heroines have often entreated those left behind not to weep too much at their deaths. In one of the most moving death scenes in opera, Henry Purcell’s Dido, of Dido and Aeneas, tells the audience that when she is “laid in earth” they should remember her, but forget her failures and misfortunes: “May my wrongs create no trouble in thy breast,” she cries as her life slowly ebbs away. Others have specifically forbidden any weeping by their graves. In his 1812 poem “Euthanasia,” Lord Byron asks that no “band of friends or heirs” attend his funeral:
But silent let me sink to earth,
With no officious mourners near:
I would not mar one hour of mirth,
Nor startle friendship with a tear.
Perhaps a similar sentiment lay behind my father’s last request. Maybe Fa’s wish that there should be no funeral or memorial service for him was motivated by this same idea—a desire to save us all from an event bound to provoke tears.
Copyright © 2011 by Sarah Murray
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