Yemeni Cemetery Rituals

Yemeni cemetery rituals and customs

Almigdad Mojalli

Like people in any nation, Yemenis have their own customs, rites and rituals that they observe at grave sites. In some northern rural districts of Yemen, the relatives of a deceased person will go on the third day after his/her death to visit the grave site, bringing with them as many poor people and children as possible. The relatives also bring with them large quantities of food, which often includes bread, soup, meat, ‘aseed or hareesh (a popular porridge made of wheat) and many other dishes. They bring children and poor people to eat the food for charity in the name of the deceased. The relatives, poor people and children come to the cemetery in the early morning at half past six and stay there for about two hours before the entire group leaves the cemetery. The poor people and children eat the food until there is nothing left. The idea behind this is that the relatives of the deceased give to charity so that the poor and the children will pray for the soul of the deceased. Afterwards, the children leave the cemetery praying for the dead loudly in chorus while the older people pray with quiet voices.When they finished eating in the cemetery, the relatives of the dead pour ghee (clarified butter) on the children’s heads. “People used to pour ghee on the heads of children as an indication that ghee, cows and children are examples of the mercy of God,” said Arwa Othman, an author and cultural figure who researches Yemen’s social customs and practices.Before the 1960s, Yemen was so poor that many of its citizens couldn’t even afford to eat. So when people enjoyed a large and rich meal, they would boast about it. Consequently, the children who went to the cemetery on the third day after a burial had a good meal and would then boast to their peers by showing off the ghee in their hair as evidence. What’s comic is that when children used to leave the cemeteries, they didn’t go home to wash, but rather went to find their friends to show off their full bellies and ghee-dressed hair. But because of the sun’s heat, the ghee quickly began to smell rotten.”Visiting cemeteries and spreading food on poor people and children indicate that there is a kind of dialogue between the dead and his relatives,” said Othman. Another custom is that when children and poor people see a funeral, they go to the cemetery and ask the relatives of the dead for money once they have finished with the burial. Sometimes, they insist on getting money or else they make a scene by shouting out that the deceased’s relative are poor to the other mourners attending the funeral. “The biggest concern I had after the death of my father was how to provide money for the poor people and children who attended the funeral of my father. To do that, I was compelled to borrow money from some of my friends,” said Mohammed Naji Musaed, a mourner who interred his father at Al-Mashhad cemetery. “My son died and I spent all my money and the money that I borrowed from relatives and friends. So on the day of his funeral, I didn’t have any money with me to give to the children and poor people. I was compelled to avoid them,” said Ahmed Al-Naqeeb, who buried his son at Al-Sayah cemetery.Nowadays, the poor people and children who come to cemeteries seeking money during funerals are beggars and poor passers-by. They choose cemeteries because they know that the relatives of the dead always give out money as charity to entice God to forgive the deceased’s sins.“According to a hadith of the prophet Mohammed (pbuh), nothing reaches someone after his death except for four things, and one of them is charity. So we give money requesting God to wipe clean the deceased’s sins,” said Mohammed Al-Hammadi, an imam (preacher) at Ammar Bin Yasser mosque in Sana’a. In some districts of Yemen like Dhamar, Al-Jawf and Amran, people hold superstitions about death and funerals. They believe that someone who has lost over six of their own children is able to know a recently deceased person’s debts and sins, and whether they will go to heaven or hell. “In our village in Ans district, Dhamar governorate, a man lost eight children and people believed that in the evening, his soul visited people who died and knows the situations in their tombs,” explained Younis Al-Ansi a villager whose grandparents passed away recently. “The relatives of the deceased used to go to him on the second day after the death to ask about their relative.” These burial customs might not seem crucial to follow or religiously mandated, but as Othman stated, “regardless of being true or false, these [traditions] indicate the strong relations between the dead and the living that God asked us to keep up.”

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