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Kyrgyzstan: Fury Over Lavish Funeral Ban

Muslim leaders in Kyrgyzstan are urging the faithful to spend less money on burying their dead.
By Cholpon Orozobekova

When the wife of a poor villager in northern Kyrgyzstan died after a long illness, her husband insisted on giving her a traditional burial. "Her husband did her proud," neighbours said with satisfaction, after consuming the usual array of delicacies at the funeral.


While the neighbours were clearly delighted, the widower was left in debt, however, having borrowed large sums of money to pay for the slaughter of a cow and horse.


Two and a half months after the burial, he told clergy at his local mosque he had no money left for the traditional forty-day commemoration. "Her soul is no doubt in torment, unable to find peace," he said in tears. "I'm 20,000 som (420 US dollars) in debt. The villagers are tormenting me, coming every day and asking me to repay them, but where can I find the money?"


The villager's dilemma was far from unusual in a country where many people defy their extreme poverty to stage lavish funerals and 40-day long wakes in accordance with the traditions of their ancestors.


There is nothing specifically Muslim about these traditions. In fact, the Shariah (Islamic code of law) forbids the slaughter of cattle for funerals and commemorations and does not insist on wakes.


But for generations, Kyrgyz families have marked funerals by killing at least one or two cows or horses, while richer folk kill three or four cattle and a couple of sheep.


The tradition is ruinously expensive to the impoverished population. A horse costs around 275 dollars, a cow roughly 200 dollars and a sheep 70 dollars. As the average wage is about 10 dollars a month - and half the population is jobless - a single cow will consume a working man's entire annual wage.


The expense does not end there. The family is also expected to stock a funeral table of other food for the duration of the wake and to distribute "jyrtysh" - pieces of cloth cut in the shape of handkerchiefs - in memory of the departed.


To add to the expense, mourners increasingly tend to take every scrap of food they find on the funeral table away with them. This forces those arranging the table to continually replace everything, as each set of departing guests is replaced by another group.


It was because of this that the country's highest religious authority, the Muftiyat, issued a special decree on February 5, banning the traditional slaughter of cattle and the provision of cloth. It said the deceased should be buried on the day they died, not the customary three days after death - which gives relatives time to attend.


This decree is an attempt to stop the Kyrgyz from slipping even further into the grips of economic crisis and to establish that such spendthrift traditions contradict Islamic law.


Quoting the Koran, the deputy mufti, Mulla Abdylda Asrankulov, said believers should not "squander" their wealth. "Those that allow squandering are close friends of the devil," he said.


The Muftiyat, the Islamic governing body, pointed out that neighbouring Uzbeks, who spend less on funerals and do not slaughter cattle on such occasions, live better than the Kyrgyz who continue to compete over the number of cattle they kill for funerals and over the cutting of hundreds of square meters of jyrtysh.


It said mourners were bound only to cleanse the body, wrap it in a shroud and read a parting prayer, the "janaza", over the body.


The Muftiyat is almost certainly acting in tandem with the authorities, who are convinced that cutting funeral expenses would help the war on poverty. Deputies in parliament have already drafted a law banning the slaughter of cattle for funerals.


But parliament is by no means immune to the pull of the old custom. In fact, sessions are frequently interrupted to enable groups of deputies to go off for half a day to attend funerals and eat their fill at the well-stocked funeral table.


In the south, some villages now forbid the slaughter of cattle before burial. Only after the body has been buried can one goat be slaughtered.


But in the more conservative north, the Muftiyat's decree has gone down very badly, provoking protests that the authorities want to go back to the Soviet era, when religious traditions were persecuted.


"Are we going back to those times?" an angry inhabitant of the Kochkor region asked. "During the Soviet dictatorship, one of our relatives was jailed for slaughtering a horse for his father's funeral. He didn't even have time to throw a lump of earth on his father's coffin."


The man's father added, "What will happen if I die tomorrow and my son is denied the right to kill a calf? How will he be able to receive guests for several days in a dignified way? They can't go hungry! We have to preserve the traditions of our fathers."


In Bishkek, the old traditions have already given way to the entertainment of mourners in restaurants or cafes. But as the Rector of the Islamic Institute, Abdyshukur Narmatov, said, this did not result in any great savings.


He recalled recently reading prayers at a restaurant after a funeral. "They paid 18,000 som (360 dollars) just to rent the restaurant for a few hours - not to mention the cost of food."


The deputy mufti, Abdylda Asrankulov, said money now spent on renting restaurants and buying cattle would be better spent on helping the poor or repairing bridges in memory of the deceased.


The Muftiyat fears growing numbers of young people are abandoning or changing faith because it is so expensive to keep up Muslim religious practices.


Not everyone is against the proposed changes. Janyl Omorova of Bishkek said after her mother's death she was forced to feed a lot of people she had never met. "Day after day, the same total strangers came to the house to have something to eat," she said. "I'm in total support of the decision of the Muftiyat."


Cholpon Orozobekova is an IWPR contributor


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