The power of culture

Today I attended my first Ismaili Funeral Ceremony. It was an experience to behold since it was, at first, completely foreign. I went to pay my last respects to a quiet, powerful woman who has left us way too soon. As at most funeral ceremonies, I connected with many people that it was a joy to see, despite the circumstances. But mostly I will take from it a deep curiosity about the culture she lived in, in which I was so briefly immersed.

I say that it was foreign, at first, because the initial experience was a cold immersion in a different language and culture. We needed to remove our shoes to enter the Jamatkhana. We were surrounded by an almost medidative chant of people singing/praying the same prayer over and over. We were told to sit on the floor, or if we must in chairs, with men on one side of the room and women on the other. The family and the bier were behind a screen for the first half of the ceremony so that those of us left outside had to pray, as it were, on faith. The experience was ethereal and haunting. But slowly, the common experience took over and the mist of confusion began to lift.

One can only interpret what one sees and hears through one's own experience, so I began to see the prayers and rituals around us through the lens of the Catholic religion I grew up in. The haunting chant became a communal version of a hail Mary. The screen of separation much like a rood screen of days of old. The practice of the men of the community bearing the bier on its final journey like the pall-bearers I know. While foreign, the rituals were still familiar and carried the same catharsis, regardless of culture.

But while familiarity was necessary to help me navigate my way through the experience, it was the difference that has me curious. In the translation of the prayer, they spoke of their belief that one's true life was the one after death, where peace was the ultimate reward. It was almost as if our life on earth was like being in the womb and only through death are we born. They speak of universal equality in that no matter who you are in life, all funeral services are the same, managed by the community and volunteers. But in stark contrast, the men and women are not allowed to sit together. And while the women ran the prayers, only the men are allowed to go to the interment. My friend's older sister was not allowed to see her to her final resting place but her brother was. Equal? It has me curious.

In the end the most shocking part of the experience was the depth of commitment and support of the community to ensure that the family wasn't burdened in their time of grief. It was shocking not because I feel that they shouldn't, but for how rare that seems to be in my own culture. The power of a culture to bind together a community as a force for good was more evident there than anywhere I've ever been. For once I can understand how people use their religion as source of community and why one would want to. Goodbye Rosemina, thank you for your final gift of this experience.