“Death does not hurt…the dead…but hurts the living!” So says a line from Arabic poet Mahmoud Darwish, in his poem “In the Presence of Absence”. Darwish notes the painful nature of death, but observes that it is the living who feel this pain. The dead, who have already left this life, do not feel the sadness experienced by those who loved them, those who mourn for them, those who visit their graves.
It seems as though Darwish’s words were written for Fatima, a woman of 50, who lost her son Ahmed five years ago in a car accident. The departure of her son caused her a great deal of grief and pain. She misses her son to the extent that she spends the first day of every Eid in the cemetery, beside the grave of her son.
There in the cemetery, with tears falling down her cheek, Fatima recounts her memories of her son, lifting her hands to the sky and calling on Allah to have mercy on her son and all Muslims.
Fatima’s other sons and daughters gather around her every first day of Eid, wearing new clothes on their bodies and smiles on their faces. But even then, surrounded by her surviving children, she feels that something is missing. She misses Ahmed.
“Ahmed was different. I remember how difficult it was choosing clothes for him during Eid. He didn’t like to be normal; he always tried to be different,” she recalled.
Fatima believes that her son can hear her in the graveyard, so she spends those days with him telling about the events in her life. She places flowers and Rihan on his grave and sprinkles the earth with water. She also carries gifts and money to divide among the poor in the cemetery, and to ask forgiveness for her son.
In Yemen, visiting a deceased relative is not the only reason to visit a cemetery. Some people, such as Mr. Abdulla Hussein, will visit cemeteries even without knowing anyone inhumed there. Mr. Hussein visits a nearby cemetery every Friday, simply because it brings him comfort.
“When I visit the graves I remember the laughter and arguments of those who were close to me yesterday, but today lie under the ground. I feel sorrow for them, and I ask Allah to grant them forgiveness and mercy.
According to Hussein, visiting cemeteries has several benefits. It reminds us of the Day of Judgment, and of death, as well. “Thinking on death makes a man keen to carry out good deeds, avoid sin and remember that life is short. We must benefit from our age by doing good things, and bring ourselves to paradise instead of hell.”
When visiting graves, it is customary for a visitor to first turn toward the graves and greet the dead by saying “peace be upon you, I am going to join you one day. I ask Allah for the salvation of both you and me.” The visitor will then visit the tomb of his or her relatives to read the Quran and pray for their salvation and the peace of their souls.
Some people will place flowers or other plants on a tomb, or sprinkle water around the earth where the loved one is buried. Some choose to plant trees by the graves of their deceased relatives. Islamic hadiths and consensus by Islamic scholars all suggest that rewards will be given to those who perform good deeds on behalf of the dead.
Visiting tombs, as Mr. Hussein noted, reminds one of death and the afterlife, allowing a visitor to draw lessons from these thoughts. This practice is allowed and even encouraged under Islam. Some people, however, visit the tombs of important figures they are not related to. Many—especially the elderly—visit tombs of prophets and imams to request that they serve as his or her mediator to God. These tombs are considered a holy place.
The tombs of prophets, imams and leaders are different from the tombs of normal people; these tombs are often called mausoleums. These tombs are often built on a much grander scale, and their impressive, ornate construction denote the importance of the political or religious leader inside.
Older people often believe that visits to the mausoleums of prophets will give them an inside track to God. These visitors will beseech the prophets interred within to speak to God on their behalf, hoping that having a prophet petition their case will encourage God to accept their repentance. Dr. Murtadh al-Mohattwari, a professor of law and founder of the Bader Mosque, said that to visiting prophets is also allowed and encouraged in Islam, but that such visitors must pray for the dead, be mindful of death, and take lessons from their experience.
Al-Mohattwari said that mausoleums should not be treated as shrines where petitioners ask the dead to speak to God for them. Nor should they serve as a place of worship. Instead, mausoleums should be used as a tool for remembering Judgment Day and turning away from sin, because every human life ends in a small hole under the ground—in our tomb.