Migration – Ritual Attrition or Increased Flexibility?

Cora Alexa Doving, “Migration – Ritual Attrition or Increased Flexibility? A Case Study of Pakistani Funerals in Norway” in Pakistani Diasporas: Culture, Conflict and Change (2009), Oxford University Press: Karachi.

This chapter begins with one of my favourite recounts:

Pakistani Funerals in Norway.jpeg

I shared this with my most informative research participant, Uncle MS with the following words, “A short yet enlightening account on the ritual arrangements of a Pakistani in Norway back in 1973. It sets a contrast to the Muslim society our early forefathers settled in – something we may perhaps take for granted.

His reply: “Yes, especially when they went to a country with no Muslim presence. It would have been very challenging. In Malaya, they did not have to contend with these challenges because the indigenous people were fortunately the Malays [who were Muslims].

The most important duties a community has towards the dead can be summed up in four points: ritual washing, enshrouding of the body, funeral ceremony with prayer and the funeral itself. In addition to this the time between death and burial consists of many more Pakistani traditional ceremonies [including the] Khatam-e Quran ceremonies. The goal of the ceremony is to recite the whole of the Quran. The household has previously obtained the Quran divided up into 30 separate sections (siparas). When people arrive they are given a booklet from which they silently read. In this way they manage to get through the Quran during the ceremony. When this is done a platter with fruit is placed on a sheet on the ground. The chapter al-Fatiha is read and afterwards everyone prays dua (supplication) to bring peace over the dead. The most important khatm-e Quran ceremony is held the third day after the burial and is completed with a meal distributed to the poor. (p. 215)

I have attended a few funerals of some Pakistani elderly, and I have not come across such practices. Usually, the tahlil and doa selamat are recited instead. These are ritual practices among the wider Malay society in Singapore which Pakistanis have noticeably adopted as well.

Transnational Rituals

On the occasions when the ritual is completed in Pakistan, one or two members of the closest family usually travel with the body, although the funeral itself is organised by family members in Pakistan. Once in Pakistan, the body is usually delivered by the airline’s transportation branch to the family. The house will be full of friends and family in mourning. The dead person’s face will be looked at here. The coffin is then carried to the cemetery where an imam will lead the janaza prayer by the grave. Parallel to the rituals carried out in Pakistan, the remaining family in Norway will perform quran khwani, a ceremony which is held both on the third and fortieth day after death and which consists of readings from the Quran… (p. 222)

The Meal for the Poor

A ritual which forms an important element of a funeral is that of arranging a meal for the poor three days after the burial. On this day, poor people and beggars collect outside the home of the family to receive a meal, showing their gratitude by praying for the deceased… An important point here is that the meal is not simply a gift to the poor, but a gift which entails a return favour in the form of prayer… (p. 223)

The Meaning of Place – The Grave as a Metonym of the Migration Process

Metonym = A word, name, or expression used as a substitute for something else with which it is closely associated. In this case, the grave (whether in Pakistan or Norway) is used as a substitute of the entire migration process.

Although we will not know for sure, I believe that most Pakistani migrants who passed away in Singapore are buried in Singapore – whether the have families here or otherwise. However, commonly in old age, these Pakistani migrants express their desire to return to Pakistan to pass away and be buried there. What accounts for this desire?

When asked why so many are buried in Pakistan… they stress that the country of burial is the country where the main part of the family lives; where parents live is particularly important… The importance of the presence of the family has at least three elements: the family has to have a chance to see the deceased face as a last farewell; the funeral has to show respect for the older members of the family; and it is important to be buried in the country where the majority of the family lives. (p. 229)

I think in the context of desiring to be buried in Pakistan, there is more than just the desire to be with family, because for many of these migrants they have settled in Singapore for decades. Perhaps then it is a sense of nostalgia that drives them?

 

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