When Deniz Şenol Sert lost her 75-year-old father during the pandemic, she and her family found themselves denied all the usual rituals of mourning common to Turkish and Muslim tradition.
Sert, an academic who lives in Istanbul, said that the family had not been able to stay with her father when he died on April 4, having been taken to hospital on March 21 with breathing difficulties. Her brother had asked to carry out the ritual washing of the body before burial, but that request was also denied.
The only concession officials would make was to let the family see Sert’s father’s face one last time. Sert said this was particularly important for her mother, because the date of her parents’ 50th wedding anniversary fell while her father was in hospital.
“The last person my father talked to was my mum, before he went into the intensive care unit,” she continued. “He said ‘I am fine, I’ll be back in an hour,’” Sert said. “I tried so hard to get my mum into intensive care to see him, but I couldn’t.”
Only 12 people were allowed to attend the funeral, Sert said. The hearses weren’t allowed into the cemetery itself, so the family held their ceremony at the entrance.
“Afterwards,” Sert said, “people looked at each other and asked ‘what do we do now?’”
Sert recalled an earlier funeral, her grandfather’s, when she felt irritated by the flurry of activity that accompanied his burial, with friends and relatives gathering to pray and cook helva, a sweet confection shared among the mourners.
“It was too much. I said, ‘I can’t mourn when I have to serve people cakes and pies,’” she told Inside Turkey. “But this time around, I dropped my mother back at her house and went straight home. The rest of the day was endless. It turns out that stirring helva until your arm aches, handing someone else the spoon, them taking over the cooking – all this was meaningful.”
Social distancing regulations, introduced in March after Covid-19 arrived in Turkey, have made many traditional funeral practices – also followed by many secular and non-religious people – impossible. The bodies of the deceased can no longer be brought to the family home for a blessing and only small crowds are allowed to gather at the graveside for burial. Amid these restrictions, relatives and health care practitioners say that they are having to develop new ways to process bereavement and loss.
Meral Özler, a housewife who lives in İstanbul, lost her 57-year-old sister Semra after a 17-year fight with cancer. Despite the pandemic, Semra was allowed to die at home, as she wished.
“We arranged an urgent wedding ceremony for her son, so that Semra could see him getting married,” Özler said. After the funeral, Özler’s family could only allow three people at a time to visit and offer condolences. Ritual prayers said by families on the seventh, 40th and 52nd days after the death, could only be done on the condition that everybody wore masks.
“We used to have big crowds visit after funerals,” said Özler, whose other sister died some years ago. She wondered, however, if it was better having people take turns to visit, since it gave more opportunities to grieve afresh.
The pandemic has also changed the way medical staff approach the relatives of dying patients. Uğur, who works as an anaesthetist at a hospital in İzmir and asked Inside Turkey to use his first name only, said that doctors usually try to avoid giving bad news over the phone.
“We normally say ‘your relative’s condition has got worse, you might want to come in’, since we prefer to tell people face to face,” he explained.
Since the start of the pandemic, however, Uğur and his colleagues have had to inform relatives of a death over the phone, and leave the person’s death certificate to be collected at the hospital reception desk.
“It leaves people with a lot of unanswered questions,” he said. “Why did they die, how were they, was it painful?”
Tuğçe Isıyel, a clinical psychologist, told Inside Turkey that funeral rituals were an important symbolic way to say goodbye to a loved one.
“It helps us enter the grieving process and accept that the dead will not come back. Everyone has their own mourning rituals – it’s not just about religion – but they are all extremely valuable for adapting to reality,” Isıyel said.
Although the pandemic has disrupted established patterns, she stressed people’s ability to adjust.
“There’s no universal, right way to express mourning. Humans have a great ability to adapt, Isıyel continued. “If circumstances permit, we can adapt to an online funeral ceremony, as long as we have each other’s emotional presence. When things return to normal, a new gathering can be arranged, with all the usual hugging and touching. What’s important here is to express our loss with words.”
According to Besim Can Zırh, a sociologist at Middle East Technological University, societies make sense of death by making it a rite of passage.
“Giving your blessing is a farewell to the social identity of the deceased,” Zırh said. The 40-day period is important in Islam, he said, because a newborn baby gains their social identity 40 days after birth, and a person loses it 40 days after death. Islamic funerals, like in other traditions, involve the dead being carried on the shoulders of mourners to their burial place.
“In this way, we feel the burden of our lives, and also of our own deaths,” Zırh said, explaining that this gave mourning rituals a central role in building community. “Without this cultural frame, all we would see is a corpse.”
Zırh also expects people to adapt to the new conditions imposed by Covid-19, pointing out that some villages are providing online cemetery “visits”, where relatives can look at photographs of gravestones and send a prayer to the deceased by clicking a button.
“If we can’t handle the disturbance stemming from the fact that funerals are not being held properly, there’s no doubt that we will invent new rituals to dress the wound.”