Death in South Asian Muslim culture I – death

December 8, 2009 at 9:39 am (Islam, South Asia)

I knew there was something I forgot to do last night.

In the past month, there have been two deaths of people close to me. One very close, one a little less close. The first was my maternal grandmother (she passed away December 4) and the other was someone who was like a grandmother to us (she passed away November 15).

This gave me an opportunity to observe and experience death and mourning up-close, which I will write about this week.

Many people who die of old age, or causes incident to age, often die surrounded by loved ones. If it’s a sudden death, then that may not be the case. Nevertheless, because social interaction is quite strong in the South Asian community, few old people are alone. My like-a-grandmother died surrounded by people (literally – people almost filled her hospital room as she lay dying). My grandmother was surrounded by people too – mainly my mother, my father, and other people in the house. When my grandmother had difficulty breathing, she was immediately surrounded by people and caretakers trying to solve the problem.

When a person is dying, relatives often come and read the Qur’an and other pious books for aisaal-e sawaab (transferring the merit of these pious actions to someone else, in this case the dying person). A dying person is not to be left alone. If I understand it correctly, there must be someone of the same sex present if possible (for post-death rites, which will be discussed tomorrow).

Once a person has died, various things happen. What exactly happens depends on the location a person died (things in Pakistan are a bit different from here). But, generally, the body is washed and wrapped in shrouds. People should accompany the body at all times, often reciting the Qur’an and other pious books or texts (for the same reason as before). Upon the announcement of death, relatives and friends converge to help and console the mourning family.

Traditionally, the stove is not turned on for three days (more on this on Friday), so people will often bring food. It’s considered a major act of merit to visit someone in mourning to comfort them; conversely, many people reach out to relatives for support and company. The social network is strong and translates into a lot of potential support and help if needed.

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