Our Big, Busy, Turkish Funeral


A Turkish funeral is quite unlike an American funeral. Islam asks that the body be buried within twenty-four hours. This makes the ceremony a sudden event. The ceremony could be finished before the entire immediate family is aware of the passing. Since most friends and family discover the passing within a few days, a Turkish family will open their home for many days to greet visitors. With each visitor the family has a casual memorial conversation and condolences. Then the family feeds the guests. Since guests travel from afar the guests are invited to stay at the home. The family may even insist that the guest accept a small travel stipend. The family hosts a memorial dinner on the seventh night after the passing. Then the family hosts a final dinner on the 40th night after the passing. This flexible, yet time-intensive custom ensures that people are given an opportunity to pay their respects.

Just for comparison sake, an American funeral is generally a single large event where the guests are fed and the person of honor is remembered collectively. The ceremony is held not much more than one week after passing. The funeral is personal and the family has had time to travel and prepare for it. The funeral is paid for in advance of services received. Once it is over the majority of public funeral costumes are finished. In Turkey the funeral ceremony is conducted in mass at the mosque. The ceremony is impersonal and arranged the day of. The frills for the funeral ceremony are paid on point. It was a bit strange to see the gravediggers and the prayer singers receive cash in hand. Since the burial is day-of there isn’t a prepared gravestone. The grave is unmarked until the fortieth night feast is over. Although these may seem odd for an American, the open home custom can make for more intimate memorials over those forty days.

Tonight is the fourth night since the passing of my grandfather. I was lucky to arrive in Turkey in time to see him twelve hours before his passing. During his lifetime we didn’t speak the same language. I knew of him better than I knew from him. In his lifetime he was an important head of household, teacher, and mentor. There are still three nights left before his seventh night dinner. This dinner will be a large meal with local attendants. The family is spending time at home greeting impromptu new arrivals. By now the majority of guests have come and gone.

Laughing Over Old Memories

When it was busy the small apartment was a buzz with people. The first night was the most crowded. Guests came from all over. Some driving from Istanbul, flying in from Holland, and one elderly gentleman traveled twelve hours by bus from the twenty remaining homes of my grandfather’s village. To feed the endless appetite of guests, the family ordered two hundred fifty kebabs. The kebabs where all consumed within 24 hours. I ate about six myself. After the kebabs were exhausted the women spent the entire day in the kitchen continuously boiling tea and cooking. Turkey has a custom that women serve men. If a woman isn’t around the youngest male will do. For the first two busy days, a forty something year old man and I qualified as the youngest. The two of us helped the women with serving.

IMG_7169The womens’ work is much more interesting than the mens’ discussions. I did my best to stay away from the mens’ sitting circle. I was always beckoned to join them, but soon excused once they realized that I couldn’t contribute. Turkish etiquette has a number of formalities that seem awfully proper when coming from South Asia. In South Asia meals are typically eaten by hand on a single plate. In Nepal, generally all the ingredients of a meal are mixed together by hand. There aren’t soupspoons, or napkins, and in a Nepal a family or table at a restaurant will share a single pitcher of water without individual cups. There are generally no utensils and only one plate per person.

IMG_7287Turkey, with its ancient customs inherited from the Greeks, Byzantines, and Ottomans, has an elaborate array of spoons of all sizes, plates for all purposes, and containers for all types of drinks. The European signals of utensil etiquette apply. Eating with the hands is barbarian and lifting your soup bowl Ala Japonese is rude. My grandmother insists on domesticating me with saucers for each cup and utensils for every item. The customs that surround food are a rich soil of cultural discovery. The four styles of etiquette that I am exposed to are mixing comically.

I give Indian palm pressed greetings in Turkish. I hold my elbow while shaking hands. I bob my head. I give and receive with two hands. I might even sip from my soup bowl. I’m trying my best to emulate the Turkish custom of spitting watermelon seeds down to your plate unchecked. The family has discovered that although I don’t speak Turkish well yet, they can convey simple commands to me. My father enjoys this. Calling me into the room to get him a new cup of tea, because his original had grown tired of his yammering and gone luke-warm. These little services gave me motivation to learn the words for “dictator” and “king”.  Helping out gives me a chance to be useful.

My role in the service of the family is mostly for my benefit. I tend to get in the way more than I help. I baffled two conservative men when I served them food. Since men rarely serve (outside of restaurants), my aunts felt compelled to apologize for sending a man to serve them. The shocked men caught their breath when they realized that I wasn’t an acculturated Turk, but just a foreigner guy playing house.

So the days will go on like this, serving tea, reading, eating, visiting, napping, and studying. These days are actually a wonderful opportunity to eat trays of sweet baklava and slices of Börek alone. I’m kissing a bunch of strangers and being introduced to parts of my family that I never knew existed. For me these days are simple, but for my immediate family their sudden and stressful proximity is reminding them why they live so far apart from each other. My aunt comforted me while we watched what appeared to be an argument at the dinner table, “ don’t worry Deren what may look like an argument is actually love talk ”. Every time they have such passionate love talk that little part of my heart that is Turkish has to remind the rest of me that its all fine. I apologize to everyone I love if my love talk is ever anything like this… and it is.


Turkish Bath

Turkey has a culture of being immaculately clean. From antiquity Turks were avid bathers. There is no surprise that the custom of Turkish Baths (Onsen) came from Turkey. Since water wasn’t plentiful in Nepal the people bathed less frequently. Since laundry is done by hand, they also wore the same clothing for many days before cleaning it. Even my female students wore the same clothing four days in a row. Medically all of this is perfectly hygienic, but to a cleanly Turk it is blasphemous.  My family pounced on me for wearing the same sweater twice in a row. I have to smile when they meticulous scrutinize all aspects of cleanliness. To me cleanliness, to the extent that Turks are concerned, is a tertiary necessity that Turkish culture transformed into a primary issue.

Generally speaking global cultures seem to have the same aspects within them. Each culture is unique; not only in what aspects it contains, but also in how it emphasizes them. Different cultures appear like special word clouds with all sorts of formatting, coloring, and font sizes for the same universal aspects. Word clouds are digital-age emphatic visual that uses text-formatting in much the same way a picture says a thousands words.

Here are a few word clouds depicting the subjective impressions of various cultures.  We can make our own world clouds at Wordle.com





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