I know it’s depressing to talk about death, loss and bereavement but some recent events made me think more and more about this topic.
|Sose and Allen|
A couple of months ago, the sudden death of a young repat couple, Sosé and Allen shook the whole repat community in Armenia. The funny thing is that for most of us who move to Armenia, we mostly think of how to make it here, how to find a job, build a home, find our place. We rarely reflect on how we will die here on this land. I know that this can be a depressing topic for some but I wanted to share it anyways, since it’s been haunting me for the past months. I think being a mom of four kids is adding also on the stress of thinking on these issues.
|You can climb Ararat|
A couple of years ago, when Levon, a middle-aged repat passed away alone of a heart attack in his apartment while his family was in the US, I started thinking of different scenarios of what I would do if I was faced with such a tragedy. How do you deal with these issues in a new country? How do you think and keep sane when you don’t have immediate family close by? One day, I asked a repat friend where he wanted to get buried if he died in Armenia? He looked at me shocked and started panicking. First he said “here, on this land”, then he wasn’t so sure. He thought of his family there. He felt that he belonged there as well. Then, of course he changed the topic. Who wants to talk about death when you came on this land to live with so many hopes and plans, right?
Each culture has its own way of expressing and dealing with grief and mourning. Armenia, in this area, is still very much influenced by former Soviet Union customs and traditions: meaning every single detail is dealt in the family not in funeral homes (as we know it in the west).
Six years ago when my local Armenian friend’s father passed away, I experienced closely how Armenians in Armenia deal with the whole process and comparing it on how my family dealt with these issues in the west.
There is the famous Panikhida day, where on the eve of the funeral, everyone gathers at the home of the deceased to spend some time with the family and say their farewells while the deceased is exposed in the middle of the living room. In the West, and more specifically in Canada, where I experienced those things, the deceased is kept at a certain distance. Families are very much dependent of funeral homes where most of the pre-funeral arrangements are made. And all the burden of preparing the place for visitors is taken care of by some third party.
In Armenia, you sometimes have the feeling that death is celebrated more than life itself. I remember during another funeral I attended where a whole band of duduk and zourna performed very depressing and sad songs at the house, encouraging all the courageous ones still resisting to cry, to burst in tears. Maybe it’s a form of bereavement therapy, where all kinds of means are used to help people relieve their emotions and pain before the end of the ceremony. In the early 2000s, church was still not included in the process. Everything was handled by the family and closed ones. Neighbors would even collect money to help the family with the expenses. The day of the funeral, the men in the family would take the open coffin downstairs, then once in the backyard, they will turn him 3 times in a circle. The neighbors would have a last opportunity to say farewell and also, apparently so the deceased will lose his/her way home and continue on the journey ahead.
I remember a funny incident involving my kids. When we used to live in those large panelayin buildings some years ago, we often witnessed those rituals in our pak (court) and my two curious daughters (aged 5 and 7 at that time), hearing the loud duduk, often watched from our apartment window. One day, when I came home from work, I found Varanta, my youngest daughter (5) playing panikhida with her babysitter; her little stuffed animal was dead and she had put it in a small box in the middle of the room, on a table and was weeping in theatrically, mimicking an old woman: “Vay mama jan, es inch aretsir im glkhin, vay napastak jan” (o little Rabbit, why did you do this?), while her babysitter was laughing. For me it was shocking to see that. For my babysitter it was just part of life and children were not kept away from it and sometimes role-playing perhaps helped in dealing with such tragic situations.
At the cemetery, women are kept away, while men accompany the burial. Vodka is served. Each man would drink half the shot glass and throw the rest on the earth where the deceased is buried.
Then there is the 7th day and the 40th day and a couple of more remembrance days for a year, where families would gather again to drink, eat and remember the deceased family member. This may be repeated for many years after the death occurs.
When you live in the same country where you were born or grew up, these things are somewhat natural. Grievance is learnt while growing up. But when we choose a new country, when we move to a place like Armenia to realize our dreams, we rarely think about the fact that some of us will die on this land.
Patrick Tateossian, one of the first repats who died in Armenia, 2002