Traditional Turkish Death Rituals – You Are My Sunshine

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Written in memory of my father, born 14th of February 1930. He set off on his last trip on the 14th of December 2013 and lives on in my heart.

As I sit by my father’s bedside in Australia, holding his hand and watching him lose his fight with cancer, I’m reminded of the way death is always present in Turkey. In the West we hide from it, but in Turkey it’s part of life. It’s not just the immediacy of loss, the presence of an empty green council truck waiting to collect a full coffin from a building down the street, or mourning rituals being performed outside the building next door, but the way death is incorporated into Turkish social life as a celebration, where the memory of the deceased lives on in the family and friends who mourn them.

03 Dad arrives 3
With Dad when he came to visit in 2007

The first time I really came face to face with death in Turkey I was living in central Turkey. Known to tourists as Cappadocia, the area is more famous for its magically surreal fairy chimneys than for the trading town of Kayseri where I lived. Kayseri was and is the provincial capital, and was then very conservative. In order to let our hair down and break free from the social restrictions of the town we often spent weekends in the little village of Göreme, just over 100 kilometres away. We didn’t usually go every weekend but it was Ramazan and time was dragging in Kayseri, where all the cafes and restaurants shut during the day and every one staying at home and fasted. At least in Göreme we could go out for lunch and drink tea and smoke as we pleased.

After staying in and visiting the village for more ten years we had a well established routine of who we would visit. First of all we popped into the Ikman Carpet Gallery to say hello, and found all the family gathered around, even the wives, looking very subdued.

“Kim, Lisa, welcome”, said Serdar. “I am sorry, this is a bad time for us. My wife’s sister’s husband was killed yesterday. We are very sad.”

Offering our condolences we left them to their grief and went to see Ibo. I’d first worked at Ibo’s pension back in 1990, and had seen him marry, have a daughter and divorce. I knew his parents and his sister, her husband and her children. Whenever we went to Göreme we stayed with him so a visit to him when we came over for the day was the norm. As usual, he was sitting in the courtyard, soaking up the sun, smoking and doing the crossword.

“Have you heard Ibo, the husband of Serdar’s wife’s sister has died. Do you know about it?”
“Yes, he was in a car accident. He was in a taxi. A truck hit them.”
“Did you know the man who died?” I asked
“Yes, it was Ibrahim.”
“Ibrahim. Which one?”
“You know him too. Ibrahim. He works for Kent at the bus station.”
”Ibrahim” I asked aghast, “Do you mean Ibrahim Mızrak?”

Ibo seemed unaffected by the death but we were devastated. Happy, sunny Ibrahim who always greeted us with tea and had such big plans, was dead. It was so sudden and such a waste. We immediately raced down to the bus station to see if we could find his father, who we knew well. He wasn’t at the office but another villager called Kara Mehmet was. He offered us to take us to the house that night to pay our respects, so we decided to stay overnight so we could go. Back at Ikman’s Serdar told us Ibrahim had been visiting relatives and there had been five passengers in the taxi. The driver was doing 140km an hour and was struck by a truck at a notorious intersection. We knew it well and had seen how no one stopped at the traffic light after dark if the road seemed empty. Serdar showed us the police report that clearly showed the taxi had right of way and how the truck had accelerated. The taxi driver tried to swerve but it was too late. None of them had been wearing seatbelts, and Ibrahim died instantly. The others were still in hospital.

Traditional Turkish Death Rituals in a small village

That night we met Kara Mehmet and followed him through the winding cobblestone streets of the village, will away from the tourist haunts. We came to a large courtyard and stopped at the gate. Inside there were large groups of women and children gathered around cooking fires, others in the kitchen washing up, and men huddled together smoking and talking. They all turned when we came in, so we watched them watching us while Kara Mehmet went to talk to two of the older women. I was quickly ushered up some stairs while Kim went back around the corner to another part of the house.

The room I was taken to was small and smelt of vomit. The new widow sat on a bed, wearing her pyjamas and was swaddled in blankets. There were four other women there as well, and they quickly made a space for me to sit on the bed. A young girl came in with tea and cakes. I felt very awkward. I’d never met Ibrahim’s wife before, and suddenly I was a guest of honour at her husband’s wake. I didn’t know the correct words in Turkish for the situation, so I said “Geçmiş olsun.” It means may it pass, and I’d only ever said it to people who were unwell. It was enough for the women, who began to ask me the questions I usually heard because I was a foreigner. After covering marital status, teaching and what I liked about Turkey, the conversation moved on to more practical issues like shopping. I talked about how difficult it was sometimes carrying lots of bags on the bus when suddenly the widow asked,

Praying graveside is a traditional ritual

“Do you have a car?” and another woman commented how helpful it would be for shopping.
“No we don’t have a car. I can’t drive. And driving is sometimes dangerous.”
They all agreed, and I felt awful.

I stayed about two hours and during that time women kept coming in and out of the room, bringing food, washing the widow’s face, and changing her clothes and bedding. It had been one day since Ibrahim died and he wouldn’t be buried until the following week. Funerals take place on the Friday after the death, and since he had died on the Friday afternoon, the wake, and the people bringing food and the crowds in the house would last seven days. Later, over dinner, Kim told me that he’d been taken to an upstairs room where Ibrahim’s father sat. He was smoking and clicking through his worry beads, tears running down his face. Male friends came and sat beside him, drank tea, spoke soft words and then left, only to be replaced by others.

It was a sombre and melancholy night, in some ways like visiting my father in palliative care every day. However, sad as it is, as Dad clings to life, his heart refusing to stop, I begin to see his life being celebrated too. Over the days and weeks old friends appear, men and women he’s known for many years. One from his first job, who he met 53 years ago, others he met later. Through them I get to know the man he was before I was born, the young man in the photos with the thick black hair and equally thick black rimmed glasses. He’s no longer the shrunken man 20 kilos lighter than normal who doesn’t even remember I have been sitting by his bed. He’s the dashing cricketer in the university eleven, the rugger bugger pushing through the scrum and the young advertising executive with his arms around his sweetheart and his eyes on the prize.

When he was awake I showed him pictures from his youth, when he was strong and quick, and I laughed at his stories. I reminded him how no matter where I have been in my travels, whether it was Istanbul, Dubrovnik or Bangkok, he was always there before me. When we travelled together in Turkey in 2007 one of the things he most wanted to do was to visit the Valens Aqueduct. Again. He first saw it 1975. Back then, as soon as he’d left his bags at the Hilton he grabbed a taxi and ordered the driver to drive him along the walls of the old city. They cruised along Kennedy Caddesi and ended up in Fatih, where Dad got out to take in the view. This time round he flew into Istanbul early in the morning and I met him at the airport. We’d been frantic in our attempts to find him a good hotel, on a budget of course, and by 10am it was clear he approved. We sat on a terrace looking out over the domes of the Blue Mosque, toasting his visit with champagne, while he just smiled broadly, uncharacteristically speechless with delight.

Dad in London in 1954

Istanbul beckoned and he was determined to explore everything. Although he complained about the traffic and the uneven pavements like a true Istanbullu, he enjoyed seeing the aqueduct just as much as he had 32 years before. As he dressed in shorts everyday I borrowed pants and shawls to make him decent to troop in and out of all the mosques between Eminönü and Beyazit. He has very poor eyesight and no peripheral vision and I remember being annoyed with him when I had to save him from being run over by trams or assaulted by enraged passersby when he tapped them on the bottom absentmindedly, thinking it was me. Now I’m glad I indulged him. It was a rare treat to do something for him, this wonderful man who only ever wanted the best for me.

My heart breaks when I see him now. Time goes by achingly slowly and I want it to speed up but then I don’t as that might bring the end. What consoles me is the realisation that we too, in our own way, celebrate life through death. Old friends now living all around Australia and overseas, former colleagues he stopped working with years ago all tell me how through numerous lunches, dinners, cards, phone calls, emails and endless bottles of wine, he has been a good friend, kind, generous and loyal. His strength and fortitude have helped so many, and as one of his friends wrote to me, “He’s a lovely person … but you don’t need to be told that, having had the good fortune to have known him all your life,” and I have indeed been fortunate, and privileged to know him. I now see where my best traits come from, and it makes me smile even as I cry, to know he’ll live on through me.

You can find this story about traditional Turkish death rituals along with other stories about my life and experiences in Turkey in my book Exploring Turkish Landscapes: Crossing Inner Boundaries.

*”You Are My Sunshine” is the song my father sang to me at night when I was a little girl, flat and off-key, but with love.

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  1. We live in a village house in Seydikemer, near Fethiye. Back in 2005 before we lived here full time some neighbours took my daughter and I to another neighbour’s house where her husband had just died. I remember sitting on the kitchen floor with our backs to the sink eating bread, rice and other dishes from the communal bowls. There was praying, a procession of folk in and out with more food. Some seemed to come just for the grub, and when they’d had their fill they got up and left. The widow was sitting forlornly on a chair outside. I knew to say Başın sağolsun and kissed her hand and touched it to my forehead as we left. The men were gathered outside as you say, drinking çay and smoking. An Imam prayed in the background and read verses from the Qu’ran.
    Another experience was being allowed to attend the burial of a good friend’s grandmother, as long as I didn’t go near the grave! It suited me. She was brought to the mezarlık on a double glazing truck which had been decked out with various old blankets. My late husband was called forward to the grave and he watched as they uncovered her face briefly before lowering her into the ground.
    My most vivid experience was the burial of my late husband. We knew he wanted a traditional burial and fortunately the Imam who carried out the proceedings was young and progressive. My daughters and I were allowed to the graveside and I watched every step of his final journey from the moment they took his shrouded body from the special ambulance until the final moments when he his body could no longer been seen under the slowly mounting pile of earth. It was a calming, soothing and healing experience for us, in the shade of beautiful trees as they whispered in the breeze and with the beautiful sound of the Imam. We left enlightened and in peace.

    1. Dear Carolyn, Losing your husband must have been heartbreaking but your farewell to him sounds beautifully romantic and lovely. Thank you for sharing your wonderfully intimate memories of death rituals in Turkey.

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