One day, not long after I first moved to Algeria, I looked out our apartment window and saw a group of men sitting around in front of the apartment block behind our one. It was around the beginning of the year and although the sun was warm it was still rather cold for sitting around outside. They were being served with drinks and I wondered if this was the Algerian version of a “coffee morning”. Then my husband told me that it was a funeral. Here, in Algeria, when someone dies you really get the feeling of living in a village, a sense of being part of a community. Everyone is affected in one way or another, and people rally round to give support and help. Once when I was here on holiday, long before we moved here, we were out at the beach for the day and arrived home to…..groups of men sitting everywhere: on chairs outside the apartment block, but also in chairs in the apartment itself and I remember feeling very self-conscious as I had to pass them to get to the room where I was staying. A neighbor had died and my mother-in-law’s home was being used to host the men who had come to pay their respects. The apartments are so small and can never hope to cope with the huge crowds that come to visit, so more often than not, neighbours automatically give up their living rooms to help out.
When my friend’s mother-in-law passed away, I went to visit her, but through a misunderstanding, my husband dropped me off at my friend’s home, instead of at the family home of her husband’s family, where all the women were. As there was nobody home, and they were burying her near there, I sat in the car outside the mosque and wondered if I would get a glimpse of the funeral when, suddenly, the brothers came out a side road near where I was sitting, carrying the body of this wonderful old lady. Women can attend the funeral prayer although, in general, they don’t, preferring to stay at home, and they don’t accompany the body to the graveyard. I used to think that this was, in a way, kind of cruel, but as time has passed and I’ve lost some who were very dear to me, I can see that this is a great kindness, because it isn’t easy to watch a loved one being placed in the ground.
In Algeria, the body is not buried in a coffin but is placed in the grave in the white sheet in which it is wrapped. It is carried to the grave in a wooden stretcher with four sides, the two end sides open up so that the body can be put directly into the grave. A simple white sheet is draped over the stretcher as it is being carried from the mosque to the grave. The same stretcher is then brought back to the mosque and used for all funerals. More often than not a white van with the back doors left open is used to transport the body to the graveyard.
I don’t know what I was expecting, but I was so taken aback by the sight of all of these brothers carrying this woman to her final destination at a brisk walk (I’ve NEVER seen an Algerian man walk briskly!) – walking quickly while carrying the body to the grave is sunnah: ‘Narrated Abu Sa’id Al-Khudri (Radia Allahu Anhu): Allah’s Apostle (Sallallahu Allahi Wa Sallam) said,” When the body is put in the coffin (when the funeral is ready) and the men carry it on their shoulders, if the deceased was righteous it will say, ‘Present me (hurriedly), ‘ and if he was not righteous, it will say, ‘Woe to it (me)! Where are they taking it (me)?’ Its voice is heard by everything except man and if he heard it he would fall unconscious.” Sahih Al-Bukhari Chapter, 49, Hadith No. 400.
In Islam the body is buried as soon as possible within the same day and the funeral prayer is always prayed after one of the daylight fard (compulsory) prayers so those who die here always have a mosque full of people to pray for forgiveness for them. The rewards for attending the funeral prayer and the funeral procession afterwards are great according to the following hadith found in Sahih Al-Bukhari, Chapter 57, Hadith No 410: Narrrated Abu Huraira (Radia Allahu Anhu) that Allah’s Apostle (Sallallahu Allahi Wa Sallam) said, ‘Whoever attends the funeral procession till he offers the funeral prayer for it will get a reward equal to one Qirat, and whoever accompanies it till burial, will get a reward equal to two Qirats.” It was asked, “What are two Qirats?” He replied, “Like two huge mountains.” I think that that is one of the beautiful things about living in this country – the natural cycle of life is always in evidence – you see the newborn, the weddings and then death – all to remind us that this life is not all there is – it’s just a passing through.
Then a few weeks later, two of my children who were in Secondary school, came home early as one of the men who worked in the school had a bereavement in the family, and most of the school was attending the funeral in one way or another. The previous day, the man’s mother had died in the morning, so they had buried her that day. Then, that evening, his 8 year old son was knocked down by a car and killed. Subhanallah! I could not get that family out of my head. The boy’s mother had taught my daughter for the first term of that year, but then had left to have a baby. How happy they must have been at that time, little knowing how much their lives would be turned completely upside down a short time later. Allah gives a great reward to those who are patient at times of crisis such as this; because He knows us better than we know ourselves, and He knows how hard it is to be patient when hit with such a catastrophe. “…but give glad tidings to those who patiently persevere – who say, when afflicted with calamity: ‘To Allah we belong, and to Him is our return – they are those on whom (descend) blessings from their Lord, and Mercy and they are the ones that receive guidance” (Surah al-Baqarah 2: 155-157). But we cannot be patient without His Help, so we really should ask Him for it constantly and try to work on it every day. And when you are patient, you don’t waste precious energy and time wondering “why?” or “why me?”
I had to pass the house of the bereaved a couple of times on the day of the boy’s funeral and I just wanted to burst into tears each time. It is always obvious when someone loses someone here, as you see all the men congregating outside, while the women are inside, and absolutely everyone comes to give their condolences – all the neighbours, extended family, children’s teachers, shopkeepers, etc. etc.
The same thing happened when my son’s physics teacher’s mother died. My son rushed home to have something to eat, changed into his camis and then rushed off to the house to pay his condolences along with his friends. Then they prayed the funeral prayer in the mosque after the Dhuhr prayer. After which they brought the deceased to the graveyard, which was at least 20 mins drive away. All the men pile into any vehicle they can find. I remember one of the first times I saw this I thought they were going to work in the fields as I saw all these young men and boys piled into the back of a pick-up truck! After the burial they went back to the house and then dispersed.
One day, my 9-year-old son came home from school early and told me that, as he was passing the mosque he heard the adhaan for the dhuhr prayer and went in to pray. When I asked him how come it had taken him so long, he told me that after the prayer, there was the funeral prayer and he had stayed for that! Subhanallah! So natural!