Kyrgyzstan Funeral Traditions
Funeral traditions of Kyrgyzstan are not only a demonstration of the deep pain of loss, but also a way to show great respect for the deceased, a sorrowful yet important shade of the Kyrgyz peoples’ intricate and multi-faceted culture. Not surprisingly, Kyrgyz funeral traditions are complex ethnocultural rites in which ceremonies formed throughout successive historical eras are combined into a series of present-day customs.
Funeral traditions in Kyrgyzstan include several stages: notification of death, dressing a widow in mourning, preparation for the funeral, farewell, burial and commemoration.
Kabar Aituu (Notification of Death)
In ancient times, when the Kyrgyz led a nomadic life, a person’s death was announced by displaying a flag in the upper hole of the yurt in which the person resided. For the death of a young person, a red flag was displayed; for a middle-aged person, a black flag; and for the elderly, a white flag. Thus, everyone quickly learned about the tragedy and could come to express their condolences. Today, thanks to urbanization and modern technology, the need for this form of announcement has become obsolete.
Kara Kiyuu (Dressing a Widow for Mourning)
Like many Turkic peoples, the Kyrgyz believed that hair that’s been tied back is a sign of belonging to the living world. If the head of the household passed away, other women would untie his wife's hair, a symbol of her departure with the deceased, during the mourning period, to the other world. According to Kyrgyz funeral customs, a widow should not braid her hair again for forty days. Today, this custom is no longer observed.
At the time of her husband’s death, the widow is also dressed in black clothes, and she continues to wear only black for forty days. In so doing, she shows deep respect for the grief of the parents and relatives of her deceased husband.
When a woman dies, a traditional female headdress serves as a shroud for the body of the deceased. The headdress is in the form of a turban, but the length of the fabric can reach 30 - 40 meters. If a man becomes a widower, he is not permitted to remarry until at least six months from his first wife’s passing.
Juju Juu (Body Washing)
As soon as a person dies, one of the elders of the family would immediately be appointed to oversee the funeral arrangements. The deceased is then transferred to a separate yurt, where the wailing begins. Women cry inside, facing the wall, and men on the outside. Kyrgyzstan funeral traditions strictly require everyone to cover their heads with a fur hat, skullcap, shawl, etc. In ancient times, when the Kyrgyz led a nomadic life and the communities were at a great distance from each other, the body of the deceased was buried three days after death, once the relatives were able to arrive.
Funeral rites in Kyrgyzstan vary depending on the region. In the south of the country, for example, where adherence to Islam in stronger, the funeral may not take place on day three. Instead, the deceased would be buried on the day of his death according to Islamic tradition.
On the day of the funeral, the body is washed with water and wrapped in a shroud. The mullah then recites a prayer for the deceased, with the male next of kin (father, son, brother, uncle) standing next to him. This signifies that the family is committing itself to repay all of the deceased's debts.
Seoktu Uzatuu (Seeing Off) and Soyku Koyuu (Burial)
After the mullah’s prayer, the body is placed on a special stretcher and the process of conducting seokt uzatuu begins. Women enter the yurt, loudly wailing poetic memories of the deceased. At the same time, the men go to the cemetery. Women are not allowed to take part in actual Kyrgyz funerals – only men may be present at the burial service. According to Kyrgyzstan funeral traditions, it is customary for the deceased person’s family to give away their clothes to family and friends.
After returning from the cemetery, a memorial meal begins, where men and women eat separately. This commemoration meal typically involves a variety of dishes and a large number of guests. Kyrgyz hold the belief that the richer the flavor of food, the happier the soul of the deceased will be in the next life. According to Kyrgyz funeral customs, no leftovers should remain from the food that is served at the wake. The deceased is again commemorated on the third day after death, the seventh day, the fortieth day and on the one-year anniversary, after which the official mourning period ends.
Funeral traditions in Kyrgyzstan included a number of restrictions:
Prohibition 1: During the funeral, you must not point at the grave with your hand.
Prohibition 2: Laughing or running near the graves is forbidden. When passing by, you should recite a prayer.
Prohibition 3: Walking barefoot or in open-toed shoes into the house where a person has died is prohibited.
Prohibition 4: When men return from the cemetery, children should not run out to meet them.
Prohibition 5: It is forbidden to name a child after a recently deceased relative.
Religious Influence on Kyrgyz Funeral Traditions
Even today, Kyrgyz funeral traditions are a symbiosis of Islamic and pre-Islamic beliefs. For example, despite the fact that most Kyrgyz are Muslim, on the gravestones there is nearly always a portrait of the deceased. While most Kyrgyz believe in one God, reverence for Mother Nature and a deep respect and fear of ancestors, whose spirit is believed to come to the aid of their descendants, is also deeply ingrained. Commemoration of the Kyrgyz deceased is thus influenced by both pre-Islamic tengrism and Islamic beliefs.