Whether in church or at the mosque, funerary
rites are very similar across Syria. The ceremonies held
before and after burial, however, vary a lot from one region
to another. Two young women from Damascus and Saida Zeinab,
a grandmother from Hassakeh, a painter from Marmarita, an
‘arada band conductor from Damascus and the mayor of
how they mark the passing of their loved ones.
Dancing at funerals
Cries of joy fill the air when the ‘arada
band – a traditional music group that sings and performs
swordplay during weddings and other celebrations – arrives.
However, no happy couple is in sight. Instead, a group of
men dressed in black approach with a coffin on their
“When a pregnant woman or a young mother
dies, we sing wedding songs at the funeral,” Nibal Abdoun, a
journalism student from Damascus whose friend died in a car
accident shortly after giving birth, explained. “I sounded
cries of joy at her funeral and prayed for her soul to rest
Abu Fayyad, the conductor of the
Al-Cham Al-Qadimeh ‘arada
band, said it is not uncommon for his group to be invited to
perform at funerals throughout the city.
“Damascenes hire an ‘arada
band after the death of young bachelors and children as
well, to celebrate the wedding they will never have,” he
said. “Some people are against having an ‘arada
band at a funeral, but sometimes you are just so sad that
you need to express your feelings and lose yourself in the
Aside from these musical performances,
Damascene funerals are solemn affairs. Prior to the funeral,
the corpse is washed and wrapped in two or four pieces of
linen or satin cloth. Before tying the cloth’s ends, the
(the person who washes the corpse) asks the family whether
the deceased has any debts and who will pay them.
Traditionally, the eldest member of the family takes
responsibility for the debts, allowing the departed to rest
To further absolve the sins of the deceased,
wealthy Damascene families used to build a
(water fountain) with the name of the deceased inscribed on
it. Each person who used the fountain was then asked to
(first verse of the Koran) for the soul of the departed.
A sacrifice for the soul
someone from my village dies, his family slaughters a ram or
a bull as an offering to God to protect his soul,” Roula, a
young woman from Qusmeyn, a village on the outskirts of
Lattakia, said. “The sheikhs recite prayers and bless the
knife before slaughtering the animal.”
The family then invites the poor to lunch,
usually for a meal of meat with bulgur, saying a short
prayer for the deceased. The sacrifice takes place after the
wake and is repeated twice: 40 days after the funeral and
again on its anniversary.
“Wakes in our village last for an odd number
of days, usually five days for women and seven for men,”
During the period of mourning, women dress in
black and men grow beards as a sign of grief. The funeral
itself is only attended by men; they carry the coffin to the
grave, where the corpse is placed wrapped in a white shroud,
in accordance with Islamic custom. Prayers are then recited
as the grave is covered. Women visit the grave after it has
been filled. Three days after the wake begins, the family
returns to the grave.
“They go at sunrise and place flowers and
myrtle on the grave,” Roula explained.
The tombstone, however, is only placed on the
grave 40 days after the burial.
“People in my village believe that the soul
dwells near the grave for 40 days,” she said. “That’s why
they only place the tombstone afterwards, to avoid trapping
A large room in Saida Zeinab is filled with
dozens of women dressed in black and white. In the
background, a tape recorder plays Koranic verses. A woman
wearing a loose white headscarf offers newcomers small cups
of strong and bitter coffee. At the same time, Bushra, a
woman in her thirties, invites groups of three to enter the
adjacent room every few minutes. Here, the deceased’s family
sits, with three empty chairs facing them. Mourners enter
and sit in silence for a few minutes before quietly leaving.
“Mourners don’t speak to the family,” Bushra
explains. “They only nod at them in silence and leave after
softly reciting the
Men and women attend separate wakes, which
are usually held for three days at the home of the deceased.
On the third day, a
(a night of religious chanting) is organised in memory of
the deceased. The wake is then repeated on four successive
Thursdays after the death. The period of mourning ends with
a big lunch and a
on the fortieth day of mourning.
A week of wakes
Sitting in his living room, Nour al-Din
Barakat, the mayor of Jaramana, points to one of many dusty
photographs on the wall. In the picture he is dressed in
black from head to toe, except for a white headscarf and a
shining dagger on his waist.
“We used to attend funerals in a black suit,
but today young mourners sometimes wear white shirts – a
disgrace,” he said disapprovingly.
The dress code is not the only thing that has
changed in Jaramana’s funeral rituals. Since the building of
the two maukefs (medium-sized auditoriums) in the Damascus
suburb in 1948, they have become the official place for
grieving families to receive condolences.
Men and women visit separate maukefs and
carry out different rituals. Female relatives cry loudly and
hit themselves to express their grief, while the men gather
solemnly to reflect on the life of the recently departed.
The wake that follows the funeral can last for a full week.
“When a loved one or someone of rank dies,
the funeral must last at least one week,” Barakat said.
In Um Hamzeh’s village located near Hassakeh
in the Jazeera region, a family never mourns the death of a
loved one alone.
“When someone dies, the whole village shares
the family’s grief,” Hamzeh, a short woman in her sixties,
As part of the mourning period, the relatives
of the deceased refuse to shave or bathe. In an act of
solidarity, the whole village follows suit for at least
eight days. After this period, friends will visit the
grieving family and convince them to take a bath so that the
rest of the village can also wash and shave again.
After this, the village continues mourning by
not listening to music or watching TV for up to a year. Um
Hamzeh explains that this tradition is slowly fading,
however, and while the family of the deceased may not listen
to music for a year, the rest of the village does.
“People today watch TV and listen to music,
but they keep it very low as a sign of respect.”
Money rather than flowers
As the church bells sound the death knell,
the people of Marmarita, a village in the Wadi Al-Nasarah
(Valley of Christians) region of Homs, grimly make the sign
of the cross over their chests. Someone has died.
“Church bells used to be the only way to
announce someone’s death,” Fadi Yazigi, a Syrian painter
from Marmarita, said. “Today, the name of the deceased is
broadcast through loudspeakers and na’awes [obituaries] are
pasted around the village.”
The corpse is buried 24 hours after death and
only after the deceased’s family and friends have eaten the
lukmet el rahmeh
(bite of mercy). The deceased is then washed and dressed and
the corpse is taken to church where the priest talks about
the person’s good deeds.
Following the funeral, the deceased’s family
used to wear black for a year – some wives never took off
their mourning clothes. Today, however, the family mourns
for no more than six months.
“Customs have changed a lot: people no longer
bring flowers to the funeral,” Yazigi said. “Instead, they
pay money to help the family and the church.”