Thursday, September 29, 2011

Rustavi: A Funeral

Last week, the husband of my former neighbor, Mary 2, died.

Today I joined family, friends, and neighbors on his burial day, the 7th day after his death.

The Georgian Christian Orthodox death tradition is similar to the Ethiopian Christian Orthodox tradition.

Important ritual dates are the 3rd or 4th day, 7th day, 40th day, and one-year anniversaries of a loved one's death. Nely, my hostess, explained to me that until the 3rd or 4th day, the deceased's spirit is still close by his body. By the 7th day, the spirit has moved farther away, but is still near. By the 40th day, it moves on to join the other world.

At the house

I arrived about 1:45 to pay my respects. Outside the apartment building were small clusters of mourners. Several empty marshrutkas stood by.

Over the entrance to the apartment building was a photo of Mary's husband. 
Tia saw me from her 6th floor window and called Nino, my former hostess, to alert her to my arrival. A conscientious cultural guide, Nino came downstairs from Mary's flat, and led me by the hand back up to Mary's flat. We passed a stream of family and friends descending the stairs. We went inside the flat, where Mary's husband was laid out in a casket in the dining room. Mourners, including Mary, sat in chairs that ringed the small room. A woman was draped over the coffin, sobbing. Mary sat, tiny, in silence. She wore a black kerchief that covered her forehead and hair.

I expressed my condolences to Mary and her son, then went down the stairs and back into the yard. As Nino and I walked down the stairs, a new line of mourners ascended them.

I joined a cluster of former neighbors outside the apartment building.

A hearse waited in the yard. A man brought two stools down from inside Mary's flat and placed them in the yard about four feet apart from each other.

Mary, her daughter and son, other family members and friends came downstairs and into the yard. Then some men carried down her deceased husband in his open casket. They layed the casket on the stools. His daughter and son gave him additional goodbyes. Mary stood a short distance away.

In a few minutes, men carried Mary's husband, still uncovered as if to provide the last bit of sunlight onto his face, to the hearse and put him inside. Flower bouquets were atop the hearse. Once loaded, the hearse pulled into the road and began its way to the cemetery. We mourners followed on foot to the nearest intersection. Every few feet, I saw a rose on the pavement, in our path.

Then we got into waiting vehicles and marshrutkas and we, too, made our way to Rustavi's cemetery.

At the cemetery

We drove from New Rustavi to Old Rustavi, then into the outskirts of Old Rustavi, then up and up and up into the hillocks, where began the enormous community of the dead. I say it this way because it is customary for Georgians to have the images of their loved ones etched into stone. Some are life size figures. Standing. One young deceased woman is captured for the coming centuries in a ball gown, smiling, with her hands on her hips. (Note: I didn't take photos at the Rustavi cemetery, but will return and to so in the future.)

Example of tombstones in Georgia, these from Racha

There are stone tables and benches everywhere. Wrought iron fences outline small grave groups. It is designed for surviving family and friends to spend time with those who have moved to this city of the dead. 

The cemetery inhabitants in one area have a magnificent view of New Rustavi, the nearby Azerbaijan village, the plain that surrounds Rustavi, the River Mtkvari, and the foothills.

We went to a newer area of the cemetery, which lines both sides of the main road. A grave had already been dug. The wood casket, open, laid alongside the grave. The man's daughter wept over him. When it came time to lower the man into his grave, women led Mary and her daughter a distance away. Men installed the casket lid over Mary's husband. 

Four men used two ropes, threaded through loops in the casket, to lower it into the grave.

Male family and friends began to toss handfuls of dirt atop Mary's husband's casket. Then they picked up shovels, which had been left nearby, and went about the business of covering the casket in earnest. One man might do a token two or three shovelfuls; other men did more.

Once the dirt not only covered the grave, but peaked into a mound to allow for future settling, some men drank small glasses of (probably) chacha, which they shared with Mary's husband by spilling same on his grave.

While we were still by the grave, another mourning family appeared. I saw the deceased in his open casket, taking in that last bit of sun on his face.

As we returned to our vehicles, yet another funeral entourage arrived. Rustavi has somewhere abouts 150,000 (living) residents. With one main cemetery, it stands to reason there is a lot of funeral traffic.

At the reception hall

We went to the reception hall across from Mary's (and my former) apartment building. Same place where I attended the wedding reception a few weeks ago. In the vestibule, a man and woman sat at a table. They collected and logged funeral donations from friends and distant family members. 

Inside the main room were three long lines of tables laden with Georgian funeral food. After some milling about, men sat at one of the lengths of tables and mostly women sat at the middle line of tables. A handful of others, both men and women, sat at the front of the third line of tables. I estimate about 125 people there.

The men dug right in. The women, for some reason, waited for something before beginning to eat. I don't know what.

Lots of wine. Mineral water. Limonati. Bread. Cheese. Fried fish from the sea. Silvery, minnow-like fish from the river. A special dill-spiced flower stem dish. Various mayonnaised salads. Several courses. Boiled meat. A sweetened rice. The final dish, which lets guests know the meal is over: A special rice dish made with meat.

The funeral tamada made toasts to the deceased (and, I assume, to his family). The men stood in honor of the toasts. Women did not.

Mary, the man's widow, was decidedly not a focus of solicitous attention. This was so at odds with American funeral culture that I asked my new hostess, Nely, about it. She said that in the earlier days after her husband's death, Mary would have received the bulk of attention.

Here is a fine description of a Georgian funeral from the 1890s.

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