Turkish Funeral Traditions

Updated: Mar 28

Death is accompanied by many traditions and rituals. As in other countries around the world, in most cultural groups and regions within the United States, traditions exist to honor those who have passed away. The funeral rituals practiced are mostly based on the religion or faith practiced by the family of the deceased person.

The desire to explore funeral traditions in Turkey started after first seeing a graveyard scene in Ezel, the first Turkish series I ever watched. This scene was very similar to this picture of a Turkish graveyard. The raised graves with enclosed sides, the almost shrub-like greenery and sometimes blooming flowers growing on the soil on top, caught my attention right away. Then after experiencing a soul-wrenching, deeply emotional reaction when watching the burial scenes in other dizis, like Karadayi and Kurt Seyit ve Sura in particular, I was intrigued and had to learn more about the rituals and traditions that exist in Turkey. I discovered that traditions and rituals practiced in the U.S. and in Turkey are both similar and different.

My experience attending funerals began at a young age. The local funeral home was a familiar place. Growing up in a small rural community in southern Indiana, in the heart of America’s Midwest, families were close and everyone knew each other. My family would always pay our respects when a family had lost a loved one. My siblings and I were taken along on these visitations many times during my childhood.

This process takes various forms in different parts of the world. In the U.S., the rituals practiced typically fall into three categories: the Visitation, the Funeral, and the Burial Service. These three categories are similar in Turkey, but as the predominant religion practiced is Islam, there are other practices and rituals within the Muslim culture.

The Visitation:

In the U.S., the funeral and burial service occurs two days after the ritual of the Visitation, also called a “viewing” or “wake”. The embalmed body of the deceased person is placed on display in a coffin. This vigil is a time to pay respect to the departed and to give comfort to the bereaved family. It is also an opportunity to socialize with others from the community, and to allow family members a chance to adjust to the loss of their loved one before the actual burial will take place.

What happens to the body after death?

In the U.S., the body is removed from the place of death and taken to a funeral home. The body is bathed and disinfected, regardless of what type of disposition is chosen for the remains. This is done for the dignity and respect of the deceased, but also for the safety of the funeral home staff, family and friends. A body starts to change immediately after death occurs, so bathing and disinfecting are necessary.

The viewing or Visitation is either “open casket” in which the embalmed body has been clothed and treated with cosmetics for display. Or it might be a “closed casket” if the body is too badly damaged from an accident or fire, deformed from illness, or if someone in the family is emotionally unable to cope with viewing the corpse. Those unable to attend often send flowers to the viewing which typically takes place at a funeral home, but may take place in a church. The viewing may end with a prayer service.

In Turkey, when a Muslim person dies, the body is prepared for the funeral as quickly as possible. The funeral should take place before the next sunset, or within 24 hours. it is customary to close the eyes, bind the jaw, and cover the body with a clean sheet. The family of the deceased must follow traditional Islamic washing rites. Those performing these rites must be Muslim and the same sex as the deceased. The only exceptions are for children or spouses. The washers use cloths to methodically clean the body, top to bottom and left to right, repeating the process three to seven times until the body is clean. Then it is time to shroud the body.

There are different rules for shrouding male and female Muslims. To wrap a male corpse, three white sheets and four ropes are used. After placing the man's hands on his chest, right hand on top of left hand, each sheet is wrapped, right side first, over the body. To finish the shrouding, one rope is tied just above the head, one just below the feet, and two are used to secure the sheets around the body.

For women, the wrappings are more intricate. The corpse is dressed in a loose-fitting, sleeveless dress, with a head veil and a loin cloth. Then the corpse goes under the sheets, and the ropes are used to shroud the body in the same way as for a male corpse.

The rituals in Muslim traditions for funeral and burial begin just after death. Hidaad, or mourning, for a close relative should last only three days. Weeping is acceptable, but loud crying and acting out during the mourning period is discouraged. Conservative Muslims believe the deceased person's spirit can hear these cries and cause the spirit anguish.

Muslim family mourning at home for the deceased

The mourning period for women who have lost a husband, is called Iddah or Edda. It lasts for four months and ten days, during which time the woman cannot wear perfume or jewelry, and cannot leave the house except for work and errands. She can visit friends and family, but during the Iddah, she must sleep at home. She cannot remarry until the period is over.

Even Muslims not close with the deceased or their family can participate in this ritual of the funeral prayer, the Salatul Janazah. Before burial, it is traditional to pray over a Muslim body. This happens immediately after shrouding the body. It usually occurs outside of the mosque and its prayer room, and should take place at dusk or sunset, if possible, unless the body is decomposing and needs to be buried immediately.

The Funeral:

In the U.S., a funeral (often called a memorial service) is typically officiated by clergy from the deceased’s or the bereaved family’s church or religion. The funeral may take place at a funeral home, a church, or even someone’s home. Funeral services include prayers, readings from the Bible or other sacred texts, hymns, and words of comfort. A relative or close friend will be asked to give a eulogy, which details happy memories and accomplishments.

Tradition allows the attendees to have a last opportunity to view the deceased’s body and to say their farewells. The immediate family are always the last to view their loved one before the coffin is closed.

The deceased’s casket is taken to a hearse, carried by pallbearers, usually males who are close relatives. They also transport the body from the hearse at the site of the burial service. Attendees follow in their own vehicles, in a funeral procession to the cemetery.

In Turkey, Muslim tradition stresses that once a person dies, the burial needs to happen as soon as possible. The funeral should begin as soon as shrouding the body is complete.

Funeral attendees stand in three horizontal lines facing Mecca. Men in the front row, children in the second row, and women in the third row. If possible, this occurs outside of the mosque, like the silent prayer. The entire prayer service takes place while standing. Participants silently say pure intentions for the funeral service, and silently recite the Fatihah, the first section of the Quran.

After the silent Fatihah, four more prayers are said in a traditional Muslim funeral service. The four prayers are the Tahahood, a prayer to the prophet Muhammad, and three personal prayers for the deceased. If the funeral is for a child, the third personal prayer is often for the child's parents. After the funeral, it is time to move the body to the cemetery for burial. Transportation of the body has some traditions of its own.

Traditionally, several men carry the body to the cemetery on foot, and funeral goers follow behind. In modern times, the body can be transported in a hearse with a funeral procession behind it. The car or truck transporting the body should not be a military vehicle. The funeral procession should happen in silence. No singing, loud crying, or reading the Quran is allowed. There should be no incense or candles in the funeral procession.

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Because of the rules about a quick burial, it is tradition to bury a Muslim where he or she died. This means that a Muslim who has died in a remote location or in another country should be buried there, not transported back home for burial.

The Burial Service:

In the U.S., the grave for the deceased is prepared ahead of time, and ready for the burial when the body is transported to the site. A graveside service can follow a traditional funeral, precede a memorial service, or be a stand-alone event. It will be held at the gravesite, or at the crypt where the body or cremated remains will be interred. Graveside services tend to be fairly brief. The funeral officiant will likely recite prayers or readings, a eulogy may be delivered, and the body will be lowered into the ground or placed in the crypt.

In Turkey, traditionally, a Muslim body should be buried in a Muslim cemetery, and the grave must be dug in a very specific way. The body should be buried in a hole deep enough to contain the smell as the body decomposes and to keep animals from digging it up. The body goes into the grave on its right side, facing Mecca, ideally not inside a coffin but only in the shroud in which it has already been placed.

Typically, slats of wood are braced across the body at an angle within the grave. The earth dug up to create the hole is shoveled on top, first by close family members then by others who want to participate, until the grave is completely covered and a mound of earth created over it. If the cemetery is located in a place with abundant wildlife, the grave will be covered with bricks or stones to keep animals from disturbing the body. It is considered a desecration to cremate a Muslim corpse.

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Marking the Grave:

In the U.S., grave markers can be very elaborate and extravagant, or minimalist and simple. What kind of marker is chosen may depend on the cost involved to erect an elaborate memorial headstone or marker. It may be determined by the burial instructions left in the Last Will and Testament of the deceased. Or it may be chosen solely at the discretion of the family burying their loved one.

In Turkey, Muslim cemeteries are all about minimalism and deference. They do not erect elaborate or extravagant grave markers. A small marker or gravestone is usually put in place. Traditionally, nothing is put on or around the grave for the deceased. No cut flowers, candles or other offerings are allowed.

As in other faiths and cultures around the world, comforting the bereaved, and offering help and support to the mourning family is considered an essential part of dealing with death. In the U.S., it is customary to bring covered dishes, prepared foods, and desserts to the home of the bereaved family so they do not have to be concerned with cooking for several days. It is also traditional in the Muslim culture to reach out to the mourning family with condolences, sympathy, and with food for three days after the funeral.

After delving into how funerals take place in Turkey, specifically using Muslim traditions for the comparison, it occurs to me that the similarities may be greater than the differences. Despite traditions and rituals both the same and different in our respective cultures, there is a commonality of respect and care given to the deceased and to their families and loved ones that lightens my heart and warms my soul.

Mary is a retired corporate manager, living in Centerville, Ohio with her husband, Jon. A mother of one daughter and grandmother of four beautiful children, she loves cooking for her family and friends. Taught by a professional chef how to use spices and herbs, make stocks and mother sauces, she developed a curiosity about all manner of food and cuisine. A dedicated colorist, she is also a journal-keeper, writer of short stories and poetry, and loves to travel.

@Copyright North America TEN and Mary Bloyd

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