Funerals in Iran Follow Strict Script, With Final Ride in a Mercedes


TEHRAN — Tehran is home to one of the largest cemeteries in the world, “Zahra’s Paradise,” which lies on the southern plains of the capital and is named after a female Shiite saint.

More than 1.7 million people are buried there. One of them is Amir Ashraf Derakhshani, my former neighbor.

Each little community in Tehran has its respected elder, and in the 26-floor high rise where I live, this was Mr. Derakhshani, an engineer who trained in the United States.

Every afternoon, he would carefully walk through the long hall in my building in West Tehran, his daily workout. Rumor had it he was 106.

Neighbors would stop to say hello as he moved along with great concentration, one step at a time. In return they would get a broad smile. I am the only foreigner in the building, so he would greet me in French, the language Mr. Derakhshani had been partly educated in, many decades ago.

Two weeks ago, the inevitable news came: Mr. Derakhshani had died. And for us in the building, his two funerals — one official, one informal — were big events.

For most residents of the capital, funeral rites go according to a strict script.

After the cause of death is determined by a doctor and farewells are said by the family, a silver-colored hearse, often a Mercedes-Benz station wagon, pulls up in front of the house of the deceased. Ever since the main cemetery bought dozens of the German cars a decade ago, people in Tehran have joked that they get to ride in a Benz at least once.

During the last period of sanctions, spare parts were hard to come by, so now converted Renaults have joined the fleet of cars transporting the dead to Zahra’s Paradise’s.

But they are painted silver, too, and, like their German counterparts, also have red rotating lights on their roofs, useful for pushing through Tehran’s crowded streets.

There is haste around death in Iran. Islamic customs prescribe the deceased be buried as soon as possible, preferably within 24 hours.

On the day of Mr. Derakhshani’s funeral, his family members and close friends gathered in the enormous reception hall of Zahra’s Paradise for the start of his funeral. The hall is called “Oroujian,” which translates as “ascending to God.”

With approximately 150 people buried at the cemetery each day, the reception hall is crowded with mourners, dressed in black. It resembles an airport terminal, where the dead are at different numbered gates, waiting in the rooms where their bodies will be washed, according to Islamic rituals.

A decade ago, this was done rather publicly, in something I can describe only as comparable to a carwash with windows, for family members to peek through. I will never forget how the body of my Iranian wife’s grandfather, who was killed at the age of 90 after he had been hit by a car, was manhandled by the corpse washers, who were clearly in a rush and had a lot of work to do that day.

Nowadays, the dead are washed in more private rooms and family members can opt to be present. While calling someone a “body washer” is an insult in Iran, it is a common job and one that people keep for years.

When Mr. Derakhshani came out from his washing, his body, like all the others, was wrapped in a simple white cloth and placed on a stretcher, his face covered. The men of the mourning party heaved it upon their shoulders, shouting “la ila ilallah,” meaning, “there is no God but God.” The other mourners followed in a long line.

Throughout the hall, groups of other mourners were also following the corpses of their loved ones.

Mr. Derakhshani was carefully placed on the ground in front of one of a long row of waist-high stone columns, each with a plug for a microphone.

A Shiite Muslim cleric suddenly appeared, plugged his microphone into the column that contained a loudspeaker and started saying the final rites for our neighbor, with little in the way of personal remarks.

Then the stretcher was brought to a van belonging to the cemetery. It drove off to the vast sea of graves, and we followed.

At the burial site, a row of folding chairs were arranged under a party tent placed on top of nearby graves. The elderly took seats as the body of Mr. Derakhshani was carefully placed inside his grave, still wrapped in his sheet.

Many freelance mourning singers roam the cemetery, and one, carrying his own portable speaker, intoned another set of prayers. Five flat stones were placed on top of the grave, and would remain there for the next few weeks until the marble slab ordered by the family would be ready.

That was the formal funeral. The Iranian state doesn’t like people making long public speeches, which can turn political, and other diversions from the faith. But there was still an informal funeral to come.

Two days later, Mr. Derakhshani’s family organized that private mourning ceremony for a broader group of friends and neighbors.

Everybody in the building showed up; the teenagers even removed their omnipresent iPhone earbuds in a sign of respect. We all sat down as a traditional Iranian singer sang to the beats of a daf, a traditional Iranian drum, and a flute.

“O nightingale, lament, refresh my heartache,” he sang, lines from a famous Iranian song, “Morg-e Sahar.”

While speaking out graveside was frowned on, memorial speeches here were encouraged. Reza Asgarpour, a white-haired man, recalled how Mr. Derakhshani had long ago borrowed the money needed to finish the pool for the building, which is still in use.

“Because he loved swimming!” Mr. Asgarpour remembered.

What had struck him most about Mr. Derakhshani was his calmness. “During the war, when Iraqi missiles rained down on Tehran, he would make his exercise rounds with that smile on his face.”

Then, Mr. Asgarpour teared up a bit. “That is all I have to say about our great neighbor. His place will be empty.”

Source : Nytimes