Today I visited the grave of my grandmother, who is buried in Qom, Iran. The graveyard is created around the tomb of Jamal Al Gharib, one of the direct descendants of Prophet Muhammad (p.b.u.h). It occurred to me how much in Iran the graveyards differ from western countries.
The typical graveyard in western countries is most of the time empty of people. It is highly organised and clean, with flowers and grass everywhere. The tomb stones are high and look expensive.
In Iran, graves are typically flat or at least not very high. Flowers might be brought but not necessarily planted in the graveyard. They are less organised, especially the old ones. However in Iran, Graveyards are not empty places. At least in the weekends and holidays they swarm with people. Today was Friday and Islamic Revolution Day, a national holiday in Iran. The graveyard was full of people.
Jamal Al Gharib, like other decendants of Prophet Muhammad (p.b.u.h) who people like to burry the death close to, was actually 9 years old when he was murdered by the by the Abbasids. I’m not sure when exactly when this was, but Iran was the favoured destination of Ahlulbayt, the household and descendants of the Prophet, who were politically prosecuted and oppressed by the Umayyad and later the Abbasids Caliphate. Iran, although part of the different Islamic Caliphates, was full of Shia and supporters of the Prophet’s family, who sought refuge in the communities of their supporters. Nevertheless the assassins of the Caliph would chase down and murder many of them. This is why Iran is full of tombs of the Prophet’s descendants, also called the Imamzade. People normally come to pay their respect and pray next to visiting the graves of their loved ones.
Iranians are social people and value family a lot. When visiting graves, people normally don’t come alone. Instead, a large part of the family is present. Kids love the vast area that the graveyard with the flat graves provides, and use it as a playground to run and play.
In the graveyard, people also share food and sweets with others. Based on the Muslim Shia believe, sharing food is something that is rewarded by Allah. Furthermore, the Shia believe that when a person dies, the ability to do good or bad things that qualify that person to paradise or hell, respectively, stops.
However, if a dead person has done things in his or her life that continue affecting the present or the future, like building an orphanage, raising children well so that they impact the society positively, or teaching somebody something, the rewards will keep adding to the deeds of the dead person, as long as these things remain affect the living. The same applies of course to bad things.
But there is another way for the rewards of the dead person to continue adding, long after dead. If the living do good things, and then gift their rewards to the dead ones, then both the dead and the living become rewarded by Allah. What the Shia like to do is, in addition to praying and reading the Fatiha which is the first Surah of the Quran, is to share food with others and gift the rewards of this deed to the dead ones. This is why you can see people going around in the graveyard with boxes of sweets or fruits, offering any stranger they meet what they have.
Often, people regard the visit to the graveyard something like a family trip. They bring along blankets and food, sit next the graves of the loved ones, eat, chat, and sometimes even laugh. You also can see some talking with the dead ones and going through some memories, as if they were alive.
People also like to clean the gravestones and wash them with water. This is a tradition followed in different cultures, but it is especially remarkable amongst the Muslim Shia tradition of how to take care of the dead. For instance, people in Iraq do the same.
This tradition makes the graveyard more a place of social gathering than a place of isolation. I even noticed today that a hall for gatherings was built, which is probably going to be a place for funeral or memorial occasions, available for rent.
By looking at the graveyard, one can infer how the Iranian society deals with death, and how much death is actually part of life, rather than being the opposite of it. This relationship marks also the history of Iranian society that had to endure the harsh times that required a lot sacrifices, during the revolution and shortly after it the 8 years war with Iraq. And I believe this is one of the secrets that makes Iran’s people so strong.