Culture of Iran

A History of Moharram & Other Rituals of Death in Iran
By: Massoume Price, December 2001


Life after death has been a major theme with all the religions and the passage from this life into the other has been dealt with in a variety of ways, depending on the particular belief system. The major religions of Iran can be divided into three distinct periods. Pre Zoroastrian or proto -Indo- Iranian, Zoroastrian and Islamic period. Around the third millennium B.C., proto-Indo-Iranians had become identifiable by speech as two distinct peoples, the Indians and the Iranians.

"Mourning of Imam Hossein in Moharram", a Shiite ritual
The Iranians loaded with their Indo-Iranian traditions were also influenced by the powerful civilizations of the ancient Mesopotamia. Elements of Sumerian, Babylonian and Elamite belief systems were incorporated into the Iranians ideas of cosmos and life after death. Influenced as such, they believed there was no end for the world or for humans, which were thought to follow one another ceaselessly. The world after was a continuation of the earthly life with no notions of heaven, hell, reward or punishment. After death the disembodied spirit, the 'urvan' (ravan in modern Persian) lingered on earth for three days before departing downward to a subterranean kingdom of the dead. This place was ruled over by Yima (Sanskrit Yama, Persian Jam/Jamshid in Shahnameh) who had been the first king to rule on earth and the first man to die.

In this kingdom spirits (urvans) lived a shadowy existence, and were dependent on their descendants on earth for survival. Offerings were made to feed and cloth them through rituals at specified times. Most were made during the first year, when the newly departed urvan was assumed to be lonely, and not yet fully accepted into the world of the dead. Offerings would be made by the dead person's heir, usually the eldest son for up to thirty years, the span of a generation. The first three days right after death were the most important of all. The soul was very susceptible to evil spirits at this time and needed strength and support to make it to the underworld. The soul would have to cross a dark river in a ferry to arrive in the kingdom of dead (Gilgamesh's boat ride to reach immortality). This 'Crossing of the Separator' is called 'Chinvato Peretu' in the Avestan texts of the later periods.

To help the departed soul, the family would pray, fast and make a blood sacrifice during the first three days. There would be ritual offerings to fire and at the third night deceased's cloths would be blessed so that the dead person can start the journey fed and clad. Food offerings would be consecrated for thirty days and then once every thirtieth day, till the end of the first year. All together there would be three blood sacrifices at the first year, with annual offerings for the next thirty years. After the first year the soul was to be believed fully incorporated in the underworld. To sustain the souls of all departed relatives, general offerings were made once a year at the feast of All Souls. In Avesta this is called Hamaspathmaedaya. This feast was celebrated on the last night of the year. They believed the souls would visit their old homes at night and depart at sunset on New Year's Day.

Funeral rites involved burial of the dead. Leading members of the family would be buried at the bottom of deep shafts covered by earthen barrows. Ordinary people would be laid in simple graves in the earth. The Zoroastrian word 'dakhma' comes from this period and means 'grave'.

Sometimes toward the end of the third millennium BC, new ideas are incorporated into the belief system. There is hope that at least some people like the warriors, princes or the priests who have served the gods might escape this eternally joyless existence. If they behave well, do their prayers sacrifices and perform the expected rituals, their souls could join the gods. They would end up in a sunlit Paradise, where all imaginable delights are possible. "Crossing of the Separator' becomes a bridge (Chinvat Bridge in Avesta, Sarat Bridge in Qoran) with one end resting on the mountain peak of Hara, the other on the road to heaven. Only those worthy of paradise would cross, the rest would fall off and end in the subterranean kingdom of the dead.

With the hope of attaining paradise comes the idea of resurrection. After all, experiencing the joys of heaven in sprit only was not much of a reward! It was assumed that within the first year after death the bones of the dead would be raised up, clothed in immortal flesh and would be unified with the soul in heaven. The Indian funerary rite to cremation comes from this belief. The mortal flesh was destroyed quickly and the bones would be buried, ready for resurrection. The Iranians, regarding fire as a sacred entity adopted the rite of exposure instead. The corpse would be left in a barren place to be devoured by scavengers. The bones would be collected and buried with offerings and rituals.

With the coming of Zoroaster in the middle of the second millennium BC, major changes are introduced. Humans are created by he Lord of Wisdom (Ahura Mazda) to help other divinities to gradually overcome evil and restore world to its original perfect state. Therefore, the departed soul will be judged on what it has done to aid the cause of goodness. Attaining paradise becomes possible for all. Women as well as men, priests warriors servants and masters could all go to heaven. Chinvat Bridge becomes a place for moral judgment. People are judged not only on the basis of their offerings, prayers and sacrifices, but also on their ethical achievements.

Mithra presides over the tribunal; accompanied by Sraosha (Soroush) and Rashnu (Eyzad of Justice), who holds the scales of justice. In the Indian Veda the spirits are brought in by two dogs (messengers of Yama / Jam in Persian). In Avesta the two dogs await the spirits at the Chinvat Bridge. Dogs are still venerated by Zoroastrians and if possible are present at their funerals. Once judged, if the scales are heavier on the good side, the soul is lead by a beautiful maiden, the personification of its own conscience ('daena') to the paradise. If the scales sink on the bad side, the bridge becomes narrow, sharp and a horrid hag grabs the soul and plunges with it down to hell. The concepts of hell, a place of torment presided over by Angra Mainyu (Ahriman, Shaytan in Koran); heaven, resurrection and individual judgement are Zoroaster's own. These doctrines deeply influenced the later religious developments in the area, i.e. Judo-Christian and Islamic traditions.

The funerary rites were more or less the same as before. Flesh would be left exposed for a while. Bones would be buried to await judgement day. The old belief survived that the soul lingered on earth for three days after death. Since each person's deeds were responsible for his acceptance or denial into the heaven, the number of rites and observances performed on behalf of the dead by family members was reduced.

Traditional Zoroastrians today still follow many of the same rites. Unless the death occurs late in the day or at night, the funeral follows in a few hours. At the funeral all dress in white. The shrouded corpse is never touched and simple ablution after the funeral will purify all participants who touch the bier. The White cloths are washed after each funeral. Specific hymns are recited and Avestan prayers are said to pay homage to Soroush. The rite of exposure is still performed if possible.

The processions are normally in complete silence. This is to avoid breaking the power of prayers read to Soroush. Once entering the dakhma the rest of the prayers will be recited in Avestan. The language is assumed to ward off evil spirits. Candles or oil lamps will be lit for three days next to the dead body. Special foods are prepared and no meat is consumed during the first three days. On the third day more rituals are performed, prayers are said, a special cloth (Sedra) is blessed to provide a spirit garment for the departed soul.

Other minor rituals are performed during the first thirty days. The next major ones are on the thirtieth of the month, 'siroza' and one-year after, 'sal'. In between the two 'roza', recitals of the Farvardin Yasht, the Hymn to All Souls is performed on a regular basis. Crying and other extreme expressions of sorrow are not normally practiced by the traditionalists. They believe such behavior (Mooye in Persian, Amyava in Avesta) belongs to the world of Ahriman and should be avoided.

Muslim conquest of Iran introduced many changes. Qoranic concepts of life after death go back to Jewish, and so indirectly, to Persian and ancient Babylonian sources. The world after is a place for judgment, reward or severe punishment. After death, the departed soul will remain in Barzakh (interworld) till Rastakhiz (resurrection). The hour of judgment comes at the end of the world with a mighty blow and blast of trumpets or an angel's summons.

The earth trembles, mountains quiver, the sea overflows its shores; the sun turns on its axis, the moon darkens and split in two. The stars hurtle to earth and the other world is revealed before the eyes of mankind. All humans are resurrected; the Divine Book is opened in which all human deeds are recorded. Every human receives a list of his/her deeds to read aloud. If the book is placed in the right hand he/she is destined for heaven, if in the left hand, they are doomed to hell. Crossing of the Sarat Bridge will decide their final fate. Blessed ones will cross and end in heaven, for the doomed, the bridge becomes sharp narrow and they drop in hell.

Allah is the ultimate source of power. He is the only creator therefore; he creates both good and evil. Since Shaytan (Satan) himself is a creation of Allah, human life is not about defeating the bad for the sake of the good. It is about submitting to God's will, following the rules, codes of conduct and performing the prescribed rituals.

Ablutions and other rituals such as prayer (Namaz), fasting, pilgrimage to Mecca and paying the religious tax are the primary canonical duty of believers. As a result, many of the rites performed at the time of death are to compensate any shortcomings related to the above acts by the deceased while alive. The relatives ask for Allah's forgiveness of the deceased by reciting prayer of death (Namaz e meyet). Mullahs are paid to perform all prayers that the deceased might have missed and fast for them. All religious taxes owed will have to be paid off to ensure smooth transition to the next world.

The death rituals are based on Islamic prescriptions for the Muslims while other religious minorities follow their own traditions. Friends and relatives gather around the dying person if they have the chance to do so. There will be prayers and crying mostly by women. Till recently once it became obvious that a person was dying, the relatives would dye the person’s hands and feet with henna. It is believed that Prophet Muhammad used henna himself and if the newly dead is decorated with henna, the two judges will be easy on the dead recognizing that the deceased is a Shiite Muslim and related to the Prophet. People claiming descent from Prophet call themselves Seyyed and believe they are favored in both the worlds. The dying person is normally placed in a comfortable position facing Mecca. A few drops of a spiritually blessed water ab e torbat are put in the mouth to bless the dying person. The water is supposed to be imported from Kerbalah from the land Imam Hussein is buried. Verses from Quran are recited and even the dying person is encouraged to recite if conscious and asks Allah for forgiveness.

The body should be buried within 24 hours. It will be washed in line with Islamic traditions, scented with camphor ‘Kafoor’ (used by Zoroastrians as well) and wrapped in a white cloth (Kafan) with prayers recited. The person who performs the washing (Mordeh Shoor), should be a Muslim and from the same sex as the deceased. Sometimes close relatives or friends may undertake the washing themselves but this is not very common. In the past the dead could be washed at home, but most Iranians today go to the designated places and in major cities such acts are banned for heath concerns. If washed at home this took place outdoors in an enclosure set up for the occasion to protect the body from being seen. With the dead females the body was washed in an enclosure covered on every side including the top, so that the female’s naked body was not exposed to even sun or sky. The whole body will be washed including the hair. Nails will be cleaned and shortened. Once the body is washed ablutions are performed. Three watery solutions made with Sedr (an ancient cleansing substance) camphor (kafoor) and plain fresh water are used. The hands are washed first, then the genitals, the head, the right and the left side of the body and eventually the entire body is lightly rubbed with the solutions.

Three washes are performed with each solution and all together there are nine ablutions. For most Iranians today three washes one with each solution is the common practice. At the end all body openings such as ears, nostrils and even genital areas will be blocked with cotton balls. Specific prayers are said and at the end the body washer repeatedly asks Allah to forgive the dead for whatever sins the deceased might have committed. All clothing worn by the dead is normally donated to the body washer.

The rituals were a lot more detailed till 19th century but presently they are simplified. For example it was customary to place fresh sticks from a date tree or pomegranate under the arms of the deceased believing the dead could hold on to them for support once questioned by the two spirits Nakeer and Monker. Or if wealthy they would put a semi precious stone like agate with panj tan prayers carved on it under the deceased tongue. Muslims believe that the name of their saints will protect them. It is quite common to have five names (panj tan) or fourteen (14th innocents) or forty names (chehel tan) carved to be used for protection. In this case the panj tan enabled them to answer properly once questioned by the spirits. The five are the most venerated of all Shiite characters and include Prophet Muhammad, Ali, Hassan, Hossein and Fatima. With extremely pious Muslims always participating at Moharram gatherings for Imam Hossein, the handkerchief used to wipe their tears was tied around their forehead to indicate to the spirits that they have shed tears for Imam Hossein. With females a prayer bead from Kerbela were placed around her neck to show the spirits she has been a good Shiite and has mourned for Imam Hossein.

Once washed, dried and purified the body is placed on a large white cotton cloth called kafan. With the rich the material is imported from Kerbela. In the past Bord e Yamani, an expensive version of kafan made in Yemen was favored by the wealthy. However this item is hard to find now and most people use the regular cloth. Smaller pieces of the same material will be used to wrap around the lower legs, cover the eyes, the lower abdomen from belly button to knees, and to cover breasts if female. Then the whole body will be covered with kafan. Both ends will be tied with ropes before placing in the coffin. The kafan is never sewn and it is regarded a sin to tie the ends by sewing. After the deceased is washed and wrapped in the white cloth (kafan), either two or four males carry the dead. The body is taken to the coffin but will not be placed in it, instead it will be put down on the ground. They repeat the act three times before eventually placing the body in the coffin at the fourth attempt. The gesture symbolizes the deceased refusal to leave his earthly life behind. Verses from Quran are recited at all times and every few minutes everyone shouts ‘there is no god but Allah’ (La elaha ela lah). It is regarded a blessing to touch the coffin and help carrying it. So it is quite expected for total strangers to participate and carry the coffin for a short while.

If segregation of sexes is practiced, women do not participate in the funeral of their male relatives. Most modern Iranians do not observe the segregation any more. Dressing in black is an obligation and the close relatives will follow this dress code for 40 days and sometimes even for a whole year. Historical evidence indicates that till 11th century white and blue were still commonly used as mourning colors.

Sultan Massoud Ghaznavi mourned major deaths by dressing in white. While Ghaane a major poet remarks about an artisan refusing to color some material in blue mentioning this is a mourning color and he can not do that for the time being. With most Iranians after the 40th day an elderly member of the family changes from black into a different color. This signifies that the rest can stop wearing black. Some will do this after the anniversary (sal) depending how close they were to the deceased. Till 19th century with the wealthy, the oldest family member sent dress fabrics in colors other than black to mourners indicating the end of the mourning. Coloring hands and feet with henna and changing colors out of black after going to a public bath with friends and relatives was the most common way signaling the end of the grief period.

If the person dies earlier during the day, the body will be taken to the local mosque or to the appointed cemetery to be washed and prepared. However if the person dies late at night the body will be kept at home with lights on or candles burning all night, resembling the pre-Islamic traditions. It is believed that the evil spirits (Shayatin) will attack the dead if left in darkness. The holy book Quran will be placed close or on the dead person to both protect and bless the deceased. People who are buried quickly are assumed to have been very good (savabkar) in their life and this is regarded as a blessing.

Muslims are very specific about burial sites and adherents of different faiths are buried separately. Non Muslims are not buried along with other faiths. In most major cities in North America Muslims have created their own cemetery. However there are many people who do not observe segregation policies of this nature.

Graves are dug by gravediggers and each person is buried separately. However in Iran recently because of the very high cost of grave lots members of the same family are buried on top of each other to reduce cost. The body is taken out of the coffin placed on the ground, is lifted up three times and put down again and it is only at the fourth time that it is placed in the grave. A gravedigger or a member of the family normally is stationed in the pit to position the dead properly according to religious prescriptions. The deceased is placed on his right side facing Mecca. Under his head will be placed a brick and a raw mosaic (khesht e kham). The face will be exposed and part of the kafan covering the face will be placed under head over the brick. Till recently brick walls on each side supported the grave and once the dead was placed in the grave a brick cover would be added on top of the sidewalls to completely cover the dead. Then everything would be covered with soil. The high cost of such activities has forced many people to abandon such traditions. Nevertheless all that can afford will follow all traditions. Burials take place during the daytime only. At night a specific prayer called Namaz Vahshat (prayer of fear) is performed by close relatives to support the deceased and reduce fear of being dead and having to answer for ones deeds. The tradition is Zoroastrian in origin and is not practiced in this manner by other Muslims. At all times the body and the grave should face Mecca (Ghebleh). The graves should not be marked as instructed by the scripture but most people place memorial stones with Quranic verses engraved on the stone. If there is no stone the grave top is slightly higher than the surrounding grounds. It is regarded blissful to touch the grave soil and spread a handful of soil over the grave, representing the notion of from dust to dust. Rose water is always sprinkled on the grave.

Participants would recite prayers at all times and there are always professional pray readers around who would recite and perform prayers for a set fee. One common verse that is recited repeatedly means; ‘one always returns to Allah and ends with him’ (En alaheh Rajeona) and the other one is called Fatehah. The memorial service ‘Khatm’ (the end) is on the third day (reminiscent of Zoroastrian tradition). Everyone who knows the deceased or the family attends the ceremony. Males and females are normally seated separately. Male priests (Mullahs) will recite verses from Quran and condolences are made to the survivors of the deceased. Weeping, crying and other expressions of sorrow are displayed, encouraged and expected. Candles are lit, ‘Halva’, a sweet paste made with flour, sugar and saffron is served, along with, tea and dates during the gatherings. It has become fashionable to play pre-recorded tapes of poetry recitations accompanied by appropriate music at the memorial service. However this is only practiced buy very modern Iranians. There may be female readers of Quran who would recite prayers and verses from Quran for an all-female audience. Traditionally however males should not hear their voices. Modern Iranians are not very restrict with such practices any more and do not observe the segregation of sexes. Alcohol is not served at any of the gatherings, however for the first time sherry and light wine are appearing with the very ultra-modern Iranians outside the country.

Traditionally rose water was and still is sprinkled around. Huge flower vases were placed in the center of the room. Today with the wealthy huge and expensive flower arrangement are placed mainly in the center or around the picture of the deceased. Small prayer books are placed around for the guests to read and participate. One of the most common prayers is see-pareh (30 pieces) it contains verses from Quran relevant to the occasion. It is a continuation of the Zoroastrian mourning practices at see-rozeh (the 3oth day, after death). Speakers will remember the deceased and a mullah is present at most memorial services. However their presence is not obligatory. Many modern Iranians prefer to have friends and relatives talk and remember the beloved. With the very religious professional readers of Quran known as Gharee are always present. They are more like singers and mix singing and reciting of Quran together. They are not accompanied by any music and the ones with good voices are in great demand for such occasions. Khatm normally lasts for a couple of hours. Close friends and relatives will stay with the immediate family of the deceased. The ceremony could be in a mosque, at home or in a hotel and other places of public gathering.

The next major days are ‘Hafteh’ (7th day), ‘Cheleh’ (40th day) & one year after death (Sal). The gravesite is visited on these occasions and at all the gathering participants will be served with special meals. Flowers will be placed on the grave and the site will be sprinkled with rose water. Rich people will give ‘Nazry’ (free food) to poor people. Such acts are regarded as good deeds (Savab) and there is the hope that the act will elevate the deceased’s status in the eyes of God. With the death of young people black candles are burnt on the grave till the fire extinguishes itself. With the rich on the seventh day seven of these candles are placed inside expensive crystal candelabra to produce haft nour effect or seven lights. All these traditions are suggestive of Zoroastrian concepts of the sanctity and importance of light.

If the dead is an unmarried young man of distinction or reputation in his neighborhood an specially decorated round fixture (like a royal crown) with many black and white candles (recently light bulbs) small mirrors, feathers (red, black and white) is placed in a high traffic area in public for seven days. Announcements about memorial service are pinned on it with pictures of the young dead man. Poetry describing tragic deaths of young men such as heroes from the famous epic Shahnameh is also added.

Such stories are very popular and are used for many occasions. The structure is called hejleh which is the same term used for the union of the newly wed couple on their wedding night. This item was used extensively during the war with Iraq with many dead young men to commemorate the fact that they died without ever being married.

For hafteh, close relatives and friends visit the grave. Professional prayer readers are asked to recite prayers. Food, halva, dates, sweets will be distributed amongst the poor. Rose water is sprinkled over the grave. There are different prayers and recitations depending whether the deceased was a male or a female. With males recitations will include male heroes such as Imam Hossein or Imam Reza. With females it includes narrations dedicated to Fatima, Prophet Mohammed’s daughter. All visits to the graveyards should end before sunset a remainer from the Zoroastrians past.

The next visit will be on the 40th day, in the same manner as the last one. Most people prefer to have the gravestone placed on this day. They believe that the grave has sunken enough and is stable by this time for the stone to be set. The next communal visit to the graveyard is on the anniversary of the death. The rituals are similar to the previous visits.

Many believe that visiting the grave on Fridays is a good deed and if close by, the family members will visit the site on this day. The immediate family members of the deceased do not participated at joyful occasions from 40 days to a year. Weddings for such members are postponed till after the anniversary of the death.

Iranian version of Shiite Islam introduced a new dimension into the death rituals i.e. the martyrdom. Imam Hossein’s fatal journey in Kerbela and Ali’s assassination in Kufa has made martyrdom the most important communal mourning ritual. Imam Hossein’s martyrdom is mourned in the month of Moharram. While Ali’s death is mourned in the month of Ramadan.

In summary, the rituals of death in Iran like all other cultures are closely related to the concepts of life after death. With the ancient Iranians their fate in the after life was decided by their choice of good or evil. For the Muslims adherence to the God’s commands and total submission to ‘Allah’s will’ decides their fate. The Shiite Islam transcends death and martyrdom as a unique form of esotherism through which the true faith is re-enforced by the believers participating and re-enacting the tragic events of the martyred saints. <