Monday, March 12, 2012

On Death and Dying

Gyumri is a place where you are always reminded of death in one way or another.  While not the epicenter of the 1988 earthquake (the village of Spitak was) it was hit the hardest in terms of casualties, being a much more heavily populated area.  The collapsed buildings that remain all over the city are constant reminders.  Everyone you speak to has a story about the earthquake and knows someone who died (or, in the case of younger people, there were family members they never got to meet).

Throughout Armenia, there are also constant reminders of the Genocide.  Unlike the earthquake, which is more present due to the fact that it was relatively recent, the memory of the Genocide is kept alive in part because Armenia is still struggling for it to be recognized as such.  No matter the reason, you always meet people whose families were from Istanbul or somewhere else in Turkey and whose families fled at that time.

Everywhere you go in Armenia, you see memorials to the departed.  Many are in the form of "khachkars" (cross-stones) which are a distinct part of Armenian culture.  You may notice a strong resemblance to the Celtic cross, which was pointed out to me by the bishop with whom I work as one of many indicators that the Irish and the Armenians are related somehow.

Other memorials are in the form of fountains - some of which are simple drinking fountains, others look more decorative, but are still used by people to drink from or wash their hands.


Throughout the cemeteries in and around Gyumri (and some of the memorials along the streets) you see markings for those killed in the earthquake. Beside the telltale "1988" marking, there is usually a clock that shows 11:41, the time it hit.

Most of the graves here have pictures of the deceased.  I assume that many of the pictures are based on a favorite photograph provided by  the family, which would explain why they include the logo clothing that many people here are fond of. 

On a side note, one thing I find amazing (and which is a testament to the artistry here) is that the portraits are done freehand - not using computer technology.

As with everything else here, the rituals that people follow are interesting to me.  Recently, one of my neighbors died and I went to pay my respects to the family.  Not wanting to offend (or make a fool of myself) I asked around for the appropriate protocol and what is normally said to the family (answer: "Ցավակցում եմ ձեզ" - tsavaktsum em dzez - I sympathize with you).  As you approach the home of someone in mourning, you see the coffin lid outside and, often, flower arrangements.  As I entered my neighbors' house, the open casket was laid out in the living room surrounded by flowers, candles and benches for people to sit.  The immediate family was alongside the casket and after I offered my condolences, I sat on one of the benches.  I had been told by others that normally only women sit inside, but the cold may have kept some of the male visitors inside also. I am told that in some villages, the men and women gather in separate rooms of the house for mourning.

The sign of a funeral within

Not knowing the family too well, I didn't stay too long.  As I was leaving, I passed the group of men outside the house smoking - one aspect I had been told about that held true.

As I was sitting in the house, I had noticed that a portrait of the deceased was on the wall, with a black ribbon across one of the lower corners.  While I did not go to the funeral/burial itself, I have seen processions where the portrait is placed on the front of the lead car going to the cemetery.  After, it takes its place back in the house.

This "death picture" is another of the reminders throughout the country as almost every home I have been in has had a portrait over the living room couch.  The portraits are of the family matriarch or patriarch or both.

In Solak, Razmik's father's portrait
This is something people prepare for.  One of my fellow volunteers who left last year, a very gifted photographer, was asked by a neighbor to take her portrait for this specific purpose.  I haven't been asked a similar favor but would be honored if I was. 

Traditionally, there is another commemoration 40 days after the death and another on the one year anniversary.  One of my fellow volunteers was asked by her landlady to vacate her apartment for a funeral (the landlady's husband) and again for the 40 day commemoration.  I am not clear if these are universally formal where room needs to be made for visitors, but I do know there are informal aspects also.  These normally involve men drinking shots of vodka at the graveside.

Twice last year, I was part of an informal remembrance - once when I was on the walk across Armenia.  Approaching a village where we were spending the night, we passed a cemetery just off the road and were greeted by a group of men.  After pleasantries were exchanged, they told us all the great qualities of their friend, shared the food they had with them and shared their vodka.  And we took pictures.

So the traditions often take on a celebratory aspect - talking about the fond memories of the departed.  Just like an Irish wake....