Institute for War and Peace Reporting | Giving Voice, Driving Change

Lavish Wakes Hit Kyrgyz Pockets

Elaborate funeral rituals are driving many Kyrgyz deeply into debt.
By Astra Sadybakasova

To describe the wake held in memory of Usen Mambetaliev as a lavish affair would be something of an understatement.

Nine horses and 10 sheep were slaughtered to feed 700 people who gathered in his northern Kyrgyz village of Bosteri for a spectacular send-off that included singers brought in from Bishkek and a game of kokboru – a game played on horseback using a dead goat as the “ball”– with a prize of 1,000 US dollars. The total cost of the event: 100,000 dollars.

Mambetaliev’s three sons are Bishkek businessmen who were well able to afford the extravaganza. That is not the case, however, for the majority of Kyrgyz who are forced by tradition to go heavily into debt to finance elaborate funerals and wakes in memory of their loved ones.

On average, a worthy goodbye costs from 2,000 to 10,000 dollars and involves numerous animals slaughtered to feed the hundreds of guests who attend a series of wakes - one, three, seven and 40 days after the funeral. Anyone who knew the deceased considers it their duty to drop in and say a prayer for them, and is then offered some food by the family.

The most elaborate form of wake – like the one organised for Mambetaliev - comes one year after the funeral, and along with the other send-offs is contributing to rising poverty levels in Kyrgyz villages.

Nurbek Omuraliev, a researcher at the Centre for Sociological Research, found that 80 per cent of those who responded to a recent survey said they would kill their last cow to feed guests at a wake or funeral.

Lawyer Sergei Bryukhanov, meanwhile, tells of clients forced to sell their homes to pay for funeral expenses.

Naryn resident Nurjamal Alseitova told IWPR that the cost of her father’s funeral - including the slaughter of two sheep and one mare - drove her 1,500 dollars into debt, money she has no idea how she’ll pay back.

“I had to sell the apartment, because my mother owed a lot of money in the village after the burial of her sister,” said Bishkek resident Aijamal Mambetova. “I think that Kyrgyz should not spend so much money on seeing off the dead, but rather help them while they are alive.”

A widespread and profound belief in the power of the dead person’s spirit dates back to the days when the ethnic Kyrgyz were nomads, and partly explains the elaborate death rituals. The ancestor’s spirit or “arbak” is said to protect the living.

Observers say this explains the special respect accorded to the dead and their graves, which often have mausoleums, portraits of the deceased, or animal horns placed on them.

Although the Kyrgyz are Muslims, these ancient traditions do not fit well with the modest funeral rites generally prescribed by Islam. The country’s Muslim clergy has always been firmly opposed to such elaborate practices – even issuing a fatwa prohibiting certain rites that do not correspond to Islamic law.

“Making sacrifices on the first days after a person dies is a sin,” Asan-Aji, imam or prayer-leader at Bishkek’s central mosque, told IWPR. “These are not traditions, they are habits. In the past, animals, particularly sheep, were slaughtered only for guests who’d come from far away.”

The head of the Kyrgyzstan Congress of Women, Zamira Akbagysheva, is concerned that the costly funeral rituals are dividing Kyrgyz society along economic lines.

“Rich people can slaughter up to ten cattle at the funerals of their relatives. Poor Kyrgyz try to equal them, but because they do not have enough money, they borrow it and thus go into debt,” she said.

“Unfortunately, it’s death, not life, that is sacred for a person. When he is alive he is poor and ignored by his relatives, but when he dies his family finds both money and kind words for him.”

There have also been calls for change from those who say the funeral procedures detract from efficient government whenever anyone important dies.

“It would be fine if they only concerned people who were close to the dead person, but the entire state system comes to a halt,” said parliamentary deputy Kubatbek Baibolov. “At the funeral of a relative of some official, all his subordinates provide help. They put up and take down the yurt [tent], they slaughter sheep, boil meat, greet and accompany guests, since they regard this as their duty. They are not at their workplaces for all this time, which may last three or five days.”

A senior researcher at the Centre for Economic Research, Nasiyat Kurmanalieva, believes the death rituals should be observed, but in moderation.

“People really are going through a crisis because of the excessively large expenses on funerals. They are becoming even poorer. And the country’s economy only suffers, because Kyrgyz spend the greater part of their lives performing these ceremonies.”

In many villages, councils have passed official bans on wakes, with some like the Kattalyk council in the Karasuu region imposing an 80-dollar penalty for ignoring the edict.

The head of the Uchkorgon village council in the Jalalabad region, Kabyl Atambekov, told IWPR that the ban has had an effect there.

“People have not stopped holding them altogether, but they do hold them much less frequently,” he said. “And this has affected the quality of their lives. People do not have the debts they used to have. There are fewer arguments about who lent animals to whom, which used to happen very often.”

The bans have drawn a mixed reaction in the countryside.

Ainash Pazylova and Mederbek Osmonov from the village of Kuturgu in the Tyup region said they would not comply, as holding a proper funeral is a mark of respect to the dead.

Analyst Turat Akimov is also against a total ban, particularly for those who can afford an expensive send-off, “If he had a wealthy family who are prepared to hold funerals and wakes, and are aware of the expenses involved, then they should not be prohibited from doing so.”

Other observers note that the Kyrgyz tradition of spreading the funeral and wake expenses among numerous family members helps lessen the cost for individuals. Also helpful is the practice of each family in the village offering 100-150 soms (two or three dollars) to the relatives of the deceased.

“It’s a kind of mutual assistance. Kyrgyz have always done this,” said Jenish Junushaliev, director of the History Institute at the National Academy of Sciences. “It is wrong not to provide a decent burial the way that our ancestors did.”

Astra Sadybakasova is a correspondent for the newspaper Argumenty i Fakty in Kyrgyzstan.