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Visiting cemeteries, a long bayram tradition

ISTANBUL – Hürriyet Daily News | 9/18/2009 12:00:00 AM | SEVİM SONGÜN

Many people in Turkey start their cemetery visits on the eve or the first day of the Ramadan bayram. Theologians say there is no obligation in Islam, saying that cemeteries should be visited but that many people, including both pious and non-practicing Muslims, do so to visit their loved ones

Since he passed 20 years ago, 60-year-old Leman Erbeşler has visited her husband’s grave on the first day of every Ramadan bayram, the religious festival celebrated at the end of the Islamic holy month. And this year will not be an exception.

Erbeşler said, just as people celebrate their family’s bayram, she comes to her husband’s grave to celebrate his bayram.

“I want to be closer to him during the bayrams. Everyone comes together with their wider family and I come here to see my husband,” said Erbeşler, whose husband Nejdet Erbeşler died at the age of 45.

For many people in Turkey, the eve and the first day of the Ramadan bayram start with cemetery visits. Despite the fact that there is no obligation or tradition in Islam saying that one should visit cemeteries during religious festivals, many people, including both pious and non-practicing Muslims, do so to visit their loved ones.

Hasan Cebeci, a gardener at the Zincirlikuyu Cemetery, located in the Levent neighborhood in Istanbul, said many people come to the cemetery especially on the eve of the Ramadan bayram.

Ümriye Onge, 80, who cleans the graves at the Zincirlikuyu Cemetery and is paid by the relatives of the deceased, said the number of visitors increases during religious holidays like Ramadan.

Şadiye Karabacak lost her husband last year and said she tries to visit his grave as often as possible.

“This is the first Ramadan bayram we will celebrate in the absence of my husband. It is so hard for me to do that since I miss him too much,” said Karabacak who was visiting her husband’s grave at the Zincirlikuyu Cemetery.

Those leaving the city during bayram pay their visits to the graves ahead of bayram. Karabacak is one of them.

While visiting the graves of loved ones has been part of the bayram rituals in Turkey for a long time, theologians say there is no obligation to visit cemeteries in Islam, but add that it is sunnah, the sayings and living habits of Islam’s Prophet Muhammad. Sociologists believe that it is a result of a mixture of various religions practiced in Anatolia.

Ayşegül Karabacak, daughter of the deceased, said she talks to her father during her visits. “We pray for him and read verses from the Koran to make him feel comfortable on the other side.” She said she feels relieved when she visits her father in the graveyard. “It is more of a psychological situation, we feel better, we feel like he is still alive and with us when we visit him.”

Nilüfer Narlı, a sociologist from Bahçeşehir University, said people feel relieved when they visit their relative’s graves. Narlı said visiting graveyards is a common practice in many traditions. “Remembering the dead is a tradition in many cultures. Some cultures walk a long way on special days to visit the graves of their lost ones,” she said.

Theologians said visiting graveyards is a sensitive issue in Islam, which should be done very carefully and in a modest way.

Süleyman Ateş, a theologian, said the Prophet Muhammad banned visiting graves in the first years of Islam because the practice contained some risks. “People might glorify their dead relatives or their graves more than their belief and faith in Allah,” he said.

However, the Prophet Muhammad later removed the ban on visiting graveyards, said Ateş, adding that the Prophet said Muslims can visit the graves since it will remind people of the death and the afterlife. “It is sunnah since Prophet Muhammad used to visit graveyards and pray for the dead.”

Ateş said there is no necessity or obligation in Islam for visiting graves during bayrams. He said in Saudi Arabia people do not pay attention to graves and they do not visit graveyards during Ramadan.

Sociologist Narlı believes this is a tradition in Turkey that has its roots in pre-Islamic tradition.

“Turkish religious culture is more heterodoxical despite being based on Islam. It is mixed with pre-Islamic traditions and various types of religions living in Anatolia,” said Narlı.

According to Narlı, visiting the graves is more a folk tradition. “But when people go there they pray Islamic verses. This is a mixture of tradition and religion, and this tradition is not pure, it rather reflects a mixture of many cultures that influenced Turks,” said Narlı.

Theologians also believe that reading the Koran in the graveyard is not an obligation or sunnah in Islam. Ateş said, “Our prophet used to pray in the graveyard but he did not read the Koran there. The Koran is for people who are alive. It regulates daily life in the world. Reading it to dead people is not helpful to them. One should read it to learn and to adopt its rules to life,” said Ateş.

Professor Salih Akdemir, a theologian from Ankara University, said some people even commercialized that tradition by introducing the practice of hiring someone to read the Koran to the dead. “Some people are hired to read the Koran for dead people in exchange for money. This is wrong, being paid to read the Koran is not acceptable,” he said.

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