I woke up this morning to a troubled phone call from a friend. His mother, with whom he is very close and of whom he is the primary caretaker, died sometime during the night. There were only a few hours until the whirlwind of a Coptic funeral began.
He told me the prayer service would begin at 11:30am, and I arrived with mutual friends having met coincidentally at the microbus line taking us into a poorer area of Maadi. St. George’s Coptic Orthodox Church is a smaller structure sandwiched between commercial buildings along the route, and was where my friend and his family worshiped for many years. We sat in the courtyard waiting for the main group to arrive.
Around noon the family entered. The women were dressed completely in black; several were wailing. The men were more subdued, and a number carried the casket into the church, placing it on a platform in front of the iconostasis, behind which is the sacramental altar. When the priest arrived, mass began.
Mass followed its basic structure, including recitations of the Lord’s Prayer and the Nicene Creed. One gentleman read from the resurrection passage of I Corinthians 15, while my friend labored valiantly through the reading in John where Jesus states he is the resurrection and the life. The priest reminded that all will die, and our reaction should be to prepare now to face judgment. The traditional Egyptian funeral greeting – ‘the remainder (of the deceased’s life) to your life’ – is suspect, however, as it posits a life ended before its time. Death is only a door to eternity, he clarified, in which there is no remainder.
At the close of prayers all exited, with the men carrying the casket to load into the hearse. Surely enough, its license plate read ‘Cairo, under request’. This was explained to me previously in the context of the Coptic protest march from Shubra to Maspero, in which some wore white garb stenciled with the hearse’s label signaling their readiness for martyrdom. Prophetically, many of the protestors did die; a moving memorial tribute march occurred yesterday. A video news clip can be seen here.
My friends and I followed the hearse in a taxi, going downtown to Old Cairo to the Latin Cemetery. As best I could tell, there were no plots in the earth. Instead the grounds were filled with mausoleums, the cheapest of which could be purchased for 30,000 LE, approximately $5,000 US. Each unit then became the property of the family to be passed down through the generations. Caskets would be piled on top of each other until they would dry rot with the passing of time. They would then be removed, the bones inside placed in a box which would then be interred in a common area, with no special marking. Interestingly, many names in this ceremony were of foreign origin – Italian, French – though Egyptian names were prevalent also. Catholic in origin, the cemetery accepted anyone. Somewhere in history my friend’s Orthodox ancestors purchased space – in corridor 18, plot 86.
When the mourners arrived they either did not know this number or else did not know how to navigate the grounds. One in charge then quickly led the pallbearers who hustled under the weight of the heavy casket. Once there, what appeared as chaos erupted. The casket was carried into the crypt, as the wailing of the women began again. One of the male relatives had to be physically removed from inside, not wishing to depart from the beloved matriarch. Other men cried out, including my friend: Goodbye, mama. Everything happened so fast, and then the door was shut.
Whoever did so then reapplied the plastic-bag-like covering to the lock, to avoid corrosion so another body might enter, at the next appointed time. Mourning individuals huddled together, still inconsolable, but calm settled over the majority. When the priest arrived (though he had no responsibility), the men formed a greeting line around the corner from corridor 18. We walked quickly through, shaking the hands of each. We whispered condolences, but nothing of ‘remainder’. Following the lead of friends, I kissed my friend on both cheeks.
With this, everyone left. The time was about 2:00pm. The intensity of grieving must stem from the compacted burial schedule. The mother died sometime during the night; prayers were lifted by noon; she was buried only two hours later.
I cannot say why culture or religion dictates such a rapid process, but its implications were observed following the deaths at the Maspero protest. Church tradition and priests seeking to be helpful urged the families of the victims to take their bodies quickly and bury their dead. Activists on hand, however, assumed the terrible task of convincing grieving loved ones to delay these rites and have their dead undergo autopsy. As such, public record now indicates the number of dead by gunshot or crushing, under the weight of government armored personnel carriers. Fears existed these would otherwise have been swept under the rug.
My friend’s mother was no victim; there was no need for an autopsy. She was simply a kind woman who received the devotion of her family, and the appreciation of us as foreigners who were blessed on occasion by her hospitality. Women of her kin will continue to wear black for some time, and in forty days a commemoration service will be held. The moment of grief is explosive, but time is allotted for more gradual mourning.
Yet my friend is confident that death is only a door to eternity. When he called me with the news he stated, with broken voice, that his mother had ‘relocated’. With Muslims, the standard and commendable reply is, ‘God have mercy upon her.’ Copts have their own special phrase, connoting something like, ‘God prepare her for Paradise.’
The mourning is no less severe, nor the need for consolation. Hope, however, springs eternal. ‘I go to prepare a place for you…’