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The culture of dying | Religion



The scent of fresh flowers filled the semi-detached house just outside London.

In the usually spacious living room, the cream sofas had been pushed back against the walls, the stack of “to-do” paperwork and the ornate lamp removed from the coffee table. A large cotton sheet covered the wine-red carpet.

Women filled the room, sitting in clusters on the floor. Some quietly recited passages from the Quran, others picked dried kidney beans from a bowl, saying a prayer for the deceased before transferring them to another – a modified type of abacus.

The weeping, and sometimes wailing, women were served fruit from a large steel tray – bite-sized pieces of apples, oranges and bananas with their peel still on to stop them from browning.

Sabah Chohan remembers the day well. It was the summer of 2011, and she was 17. She had helped prepare the fruit for the mourners gathered in her aunt’s home.

“There were people that none of us [cousins] had ever seen – and I’m sure who had never met Ammar – who would come and wail, with faux grief, really strong, deep cries. Me and my other cousins were left wondering who some of these people were and where these tears were coming from. I remember being annoyed at myself, because everyone was crying so much, but I wasn’t able to shed a tear. I was in shock.”

Ammar Chohan, 20, was Sabah’s older cousin, but they were more like siblings.

Growing up together in Slough, Sabah recalls: “He was at our house almost every day. We had Quran classes together. We’d go to the cinema. He’d pick me up from school, and I used to feel so cool in front of my friends because he was so popular.”

His sense of humour and love of practical jokes made him the “life and soul” of the family, she says.

In July 2011, Ammar and Kameel, Sabah’s older brother, were on a boat trip just off the southern coast of Turkey.

Sabah had recently returned to the UK from her own summer break when Kameel made a frantic call home. Ammar had not resurfaced after his last dive.

The Chohan family desperately wanted to believe that Ammar was playing another of his practical jokes, but by daylight, his body had been found by a team of divers.

Funeral flowers are seen in the mortuary at Poppy’s Funerals in Lambeth Cemetery, London during the coronavirus pandemic [File: Hannah McKay/Reuters]

Dying young

“It tore the family apart,” Sabah reflects. “None of us were equipped on how to grieve. You expect older people to die, but not a 20-year-old who had his whole life ahead of him.

“I wasn’t able to talk to anyone about how I felt, but I don’t think any of us were. We [Ammar’s older sister and the other cousins] all handled it differently and kind of retreated into ourselves.”

The elders made arrangements to bring Ammar’s body home and prepared for the funeral. Islamic guidelines provided a practical framework to follow in those first days.

Ammar’s home was quickly filled with love. His friends created a space in one of the rooms where they would share stories that momentarily seemed to bring him back to life.

Sabah wanted to join, but cultural expectations meant the females in the household should not be seen sitting in the same room as the young men.

“I wanted to hear the stories, but I also wanted to keep the mums and aunties happy,” says Sabah, who is now 26. “Our culture is very big on respect, so I had to respect tradition, respect the elders.”

“I struggled at the time. I didn’t know how to behave, how to act, there were certain expectations. There is no manual or formula that tells you how to mourn. There was a lot to take in and I felt caught between two cultures, being British and being Pakistani. I didn’t feel my culture helped.”

An unspoken expectation of that culture was for Ammar’s family to be flawless hosts, prioritising the needs of other mourners over their own.

“Even if we are exhausted or mentally not in the right headspace, we had to behave in a certain way … ‘Don’t laugh, it’s disrespectful’, ‘Don’t talk about death and grief and sadness as it’s seen as having a lack of faith in God’s will’.”

But it is not just in Sabah’s culture that death is rarely discussed. Dr Kathryn Mannix, a pioneering palliative care doctor in the UK, writes about the changes in our relationship with death in her best-selling book, With the End in Mind.

A century ago death was part of life, she explains. But with medical advancements, our experience of death has become diluted. “The rich wisdom around death, the vocabulary and etiquette that served us so well in the past, has been lost,” she writes.

Culture of dying/Indlieb

Mortuary workers Stuart Emans and Graham Cowper prepare a deceased person for a funeral in the mortuary at Poppy’s Funerals in Lambeth Cemetery [File: Hannah McKay/Reuters]

Creating culture, finding support

Sabah turned to social media for support, sharing stories about Ammar without any cultural constraints. Every memory she posted was met with likes or shares, which she says validated her grief and gave her the comfort and support she needed.

She also turned to YouTube where she started listening to recitations of the Quran and Islamic teachings, which brought her the peace she was seeking.

In a 2017 study, published in the Journal for the Scientific Study of Religion, Dr David B Feldman tested a theory that those with a religious belief have fewer anxieties surrounding death and grief than those without. He discovered that levels of “death anxiety” were the same in both groups, but that those who believed in God and an afterlife showed greater “acceptance of death, and a greater growth in response to loss”.

Sabah responded to her loss by raising money for disadvantaged communities in Ammar’s name. Giving to charity on behalf of someone who has died is known as Sadaqah Jariyah in Islam – a lasting charitable legacy said to benefit the soul of the departed.

She also trekked across deserts and climbed the world’s tallest mountains, making her realise the vastness of the earth, and her place in it, she says.

“The mighty mountains made my problems seem so small and made me appreciate everything I took for granted,” Sabah reflects.

‘We don’t know how to talk about death’

Although Sabah did not find the comfort she needed within her cultural group, Natalie Hay says she admires the “support” offered within some Asian communities at times of bereavement.

When her mum Sheila died from breast cancer in 2013, she says she remembers a friend visiting and bringing a homemade cottage pie. “It was such a simple gesture, but it meant so much. When I mentioned it to my Asian friends they were so surprised, as in their cultures when someone dies the house is filled with a steady stream of food and visitors – I think we’ve [non-Asian English communities] lost that.”

“We don’t know how to talk about death, and there is a real problem in English society in reaching out.”

Natalie recalls how at the time of her mother’s death, nobody phoned her. “Because everyone thought someone else was reaching out to me, and when I spoke to friends about it years later, they said they hadn’t known what to say so just avoided me.”

Culture of Dying/Indlieb

Pictures of Natalie Hay’s mother, Sheila [Photo courtesy of Natalie Hay]

Looking at photos of her mother, a former actress who was on her agency’s books as “an Elizabeth Taylor lookalike”, Hay feels comforted in knowing that she and her younger sister Claudia had honoured all of their mothers’ final wishes.

“Mum was such an extrovert, she was this eccentric, bohemian character. She requested a black horse-drawn carriage and for all the mourners to be dressed in black – even though she was one of the most colourful people around. I thought of the theatrics of it all – but when she died, because we had had that conversation, I made it all happen.”

More than 100 mourners packed the Gothic-style church in London, and people remembered Sheila in their own creative ways. One friend sang a song Sheila had written, another recited one of her poems, and Natalie delivered the eulogy. “I knew her better than anyone else. I didn’t find it cathartic, but I felt it was important to honour her.”

“It was all very traditional, and the clip-clopping of the horses’ hooves as we went through the graveyard was actually very comforting.

“It was little things like that that I noticed, also older gentlemen tipping their hat as my mother’s carriage passed by – it was a lovely act of respect honouring my mother, and that gave me comfort.”

Culture of Dying/Indlieb

Natalie with her sons Alec (left) and Matteo (right) [Photo courtesy of Natalie Hay]

When Sheila’s coffin was being lowered into the ground, Natalie says she felt strange at the finality of it all. “It felt so cold. I asked if I could throw soil on the coffin, and was told no, but I recently went to a Jewish funeral and we were able to throw some earth on the coffin – it made a difference.

“It made me wish we had more rituals, a lack of them can leave people sometimes feeling lost.”

Sitting in her sunny London garden, Natalie reflects on how her Christian beliefs helped her understand the dying process, but her culture did not offer the support she was seeking.

“I see death as a transition to the afterlife. When mum was dying, the vicar came to the hospice and he anointed her, we said prayers and ‘May Christ be with you’. It was comforting to her and to me. It made a difference.”

She makes a point to talk to her own children, 12-year-old Matteo and nine-year-old Alec, about death, she says.

“I’ve noticed that in English culture, we don’t really expose our young to births and deaths – and I find that sad. How will you understand life if you are not exposed to the cycle of it?”

Adapted funerals

In the midst of the coronavirus pandemic gripping the world today, fulfilling cultural and religious rites around death – as well as being there for the dying – has not always been possible.

In many cases, restrictions have meant people were unable to be with dying relatives.

When Nurten Haddedou’s cousin Keziban Ozdemir died last month from pancreatic cancer, 73-year-old Nurten wanted to be there, to offer prayers, comfort family and share memories, but could not because of the coronavirus restrictions.

“I’d known her all her life and it really upset me not being able to be there. I feel dreadful and still feel guilty. I’m heartbroken.”

Nurten believes it is important to “pay your final respects”.

“Not being able to attend [due to a restriction on numbers attending funerals] has made it more difficult for me to accept her passing as I didn’t get to say goodbye,” she reflects. “I’ve always attended the funerals of friends and family. It’s important, it shows respect for the departed and it’s also a chance to say a final goodbye in person.”

Culture of dying/Indlieb

Imam Ajmal Masroor performs a Friday prayer service, broadcast online using his phone, at Wightman Road mosque in North London during the coronavirus pandemic [File: Henry Nicholls/Reuters]

Erkin Guney understands this well. A funeral director and chairman of Masjid Ramadan in north London, he had the sombre task of dealing with 150 Muslim burials in four months.

“At one point we were burying four to six people a day. It was unprecedented, I used to run the largest cemetery in Western Europe and would then only deal with 100 deaths in a year,” he says.

Erkin explains that Islamic funeral rites are “simple but important”.

“You wash the body, wrap it in a white cloth called the ‘kafan’, put the body in an open casket, prayers are recited, the body can be viewed – you take the body to the graveside, and say your final goodbyes.

“In Islam, this journey, the last journey, is the most sacred.”

Culture of dying/Indlieb

Volunteers carry a coffin containing the body of a person who did not die of COVID-19 at a temporary morgue built for coronavirus victims in the car park of Central Jamia Mosque Ghamkol Sharif in Birmingham, England on April 24, 2020 [File: Matt Dunham/AP Photo]

At the start of the pandemic, with personal protective equipment (PPE) in short supply, confusion over whether the washing and wrapping of the deceased would be allowed and even reports that bodies were being cremated or buried in body bags because of the risk of contagion, Erkin says bereaved families experienced a “disconnect from their spiritual traditions”.

“The absence of these rituals meant families were unable to feel a sense of closure, and these death rituals are hugely important. It is our duty to give each person a dignified sendoff,” he says.

“I had to change the game, I wasn’t accepting this. When I die, this is what I want for myself – wash my body and lay me to rest. This is my duty or otherwise why am I here? We are dealing with families’ loved ones that have died, this isn’t a conveyor belt.

“We knew we couldn’t bury the bodies in 24 hours [as is the tradition in Islam], but the rest we could do. So after bodies had been refrigerated for seven days [to kill any trace of the virus], we washed them, we wrapped them, we held prayers. There was no way we were going to bury unidentified people in body bags.”

Mourning suits were replaced with hazmat suits and Erkin continued his work.

He set up a live stream option for families to watch the whole process online from their homes. “People were now able to say their goodbyes over video streaming, and the deceased had their final rites fulfilled.”

Seeing the death rate go up on the daily news, and facing the bodies of the deceased the next morning was hard to handle. Erkin says he did so with tears in his eyes.

“It doesn’t matter what religion you are, death is a spiritual experience, not religious. Islam is one path to God, but there are many.”

Culture of dying/Indlieb

Volunteer Mohammed Zahid adjusts plastic wrapping on one of a group of empty coffins in a temporary morgue built for coronavirus victims in the car park of Central Jamia Mosque Ghamkol Sharif in Birmingham [File: Matt Dunham/AP Photo]

‘Each death is different’

While there are often unspoken guidelines for processing death, does having a more structured approach help us cope better with grief?

Aly Dickinson has been an “end-of-life doula” for six years, and has become known as the go-to person for advice on how to “be” with a bereaved person, among her own friends and family.

An end-of-life doula, sometimes called a death doula, offers emotional, physical and psychological support to the dying and to their loved ones.

“Traditionally … this role was undertaken by a person, often a woman, in the local community,” Aly explains. “As dying has become more medicalised we have become more separated from our dying with most deaths happening in hospitals, hospices and care homes. We have lost the innate knowledge and wisdom to look after our own at end of life.”

Culture of dying/Indlieb

A pin board displaying the locations of funeral directors in London is seen on wall of the office at Poppy’s Funerals in Lambeth Cemetery [File: Hannah McKay/Reuters]

By offering practical and emotional support, Aly says she and her colleagues help to “preserve the quality of wellbeing, sense of identity and self-worth [of a dying person] from the moment we are called upon.”

Aly points out that it is important to recognise the personal experience of each individual. “Each death is different – the person is unique, their life is unique and that is reflected in their dying. The conversations, emotions, hopes, fears and concerns are different for each person – there may be some common themes but each individual experience belongs to that person [and] is distinctive.

“I know, from having seen, that death can be a beautiful and peaceful letting go of this life,” she adds.

‘Love, it’s as simple as that’

Ritu Sani, a business consultant in her 40s, wishes she was offered some type of professional support when her father was dying from cancer in 2018.

“I just wanted someone to sit and offer guidance on what the final stages of cancer look like, someone to ask how my dad was feeling, how he felt about death.”

She felt this was not offered by the medical profession.

The support Ritu wanted “has nothing to do with what religion you are – this is about humanity”, she says.

Culture of dying/Indlieb

Mourners hold flowers during a funeral [Getty Images]

Although Ritu describes herself as spiritual rather than religious, it was her father’s Sikh faith and her mother’s Hindu beliefs that formed the structure of the funeral process. But although her family were enveloped in the care of the Hindu and Sikh communities, she was not sure that this was the kind of “support” she needed.

“I had people coming up to me, telling me how I should be praying, how I should be grieving. And my brother was falling apart, our extended family members and friends were infuriated, they thought as a man he shouldn’t be behaving that way. I didn’t want people coming into our home with judgement.”

“There are different types of mourners, there are those who come out of obligation, have a cup of tea and go, there are those who come to have a snoop and see what’s going on within the family at such a personal time, and there are those who come to give you a hug and bring enough food to last a week, which is welcomed,” she says.

Ritu honoured her father and says she “tried to tick all the boxes” for him by incorporating both Sikh and Hindu traditions. “Both have a different meaning of what it means to die.”

The rituals were spread over 13 days and ended with the final ceremony, scattering her father’s ashes “the last bit of the person’s remains on the earth” in an open water lake, following the Hindu belief of setting the spirit free and returning it to nature.

Looking back, Ritu says her family’s religious traditions helped. “For us as a family, it was cathartic to do this, it was sad and upsetting but was a good way to say goodbye.”

Erkin believes that “at the end, when you lose everything, you get back to your true self [and] faith and culture don’t matter”.

“I have seen every religion’s death rites,” he adds, “and when you’re standing by the grave, saying a prayer or nothing at all, what we all have in common is love, it’s as simple as that.”

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‘Almost 180-degree turnaround’: More Black Americans open to jabs | Coronavirus pandemic News




More Black people in the United States say they are open to receiving coronavirus vaccines, a new survey shows, an encouraging sign that one community leader described as “almost a 180-degree turnaround” from earlier in the pandemic.

According to the late March poll by the Associated Press news agency and NORC Center for Public Affairs Research, about 24 percent of Black people said they would probably or definitely not get vaccinated.

That is down from 41 percent in January, and is similar to the proportion of white people (26 percent) and Hispanic Americans (22 percent) who also say they do not plan to get jabs.

The findings come as US President Joe Biden’s administration works to speed up inoculations to try to outpace a recent rise in infections, after he promised that all adults would be eligible for a jab by April 19.

Public health experts had raised concerns about the need to ensure that Black and other communities of colour in the US, which have been particularly hard hit by the pandemic, had equitable access to vaccines.

Local leaders said vaccine hesitancy was fuelled in part by decades of institutional discrimination in healthcare and other public services.

Dr Georges Benjamin, executive director of the American Public Health Association, told AP that attitudes among Black people have taken “almost a 180-degree turnaround” as outreach campaigns have worked to combat misinformation.

Benjamin said Black physicians, faith leaders and other organisers have helped get targeted messaging to the community “in a way that wasn’t preachy”.

“They didn’t tell people, ‘You need to get vaccinated because it’s your duty.’ They basically said, ‘Listen, you need to get vaccinated to protect yourself and your family,’” he said.

Mattie Pringle, a 57-year-old Black woman from South Carolina who previously had doubts about taking the vaccine, said she changed her mind after a member of her church urged her to reconsider. She got her first jab last week.

“I had to pray about it, and I felt better after that,” Pringle told AP.

Medical and public health experts have continued to urge people in the US to get vaccinated in an effort to slow the spread of the disease, which has killed more than 561,000 people across the country – the highest death rate in the world.

The US, which has reported over 31 million cases to date, has authorised three vaccines for emergency use: the Pfizer-BioNTech, Moderna and Johnson & Johnson jabs.

So far, more than 178.8 million vaccine doses have been administered countrywide, while 68.2 million people are considered fully vaccinated, according to the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).

Recent surveys have shown that more Americans in general say they intend to get vaccinated than previously did.

The Pew Research Center reported in early March that 19 percent of US adults said they had already received at least one dose, while another 50 percent said they probably or definitely would get vaccinated.

“Taken together, 69 percent of the public intends to get a vaccine – or already has – up significantly from 60 percent who said they planned to get vaccinated in November,” it said.

Other recent surveys show that attitudes towards vaccines are split along political lines. A survey at Monmouth University released last month found that 36 percent of Republicans said they would avoid the vaccine compared with just six percent of Democrats.

That prompted top US infectious disease expert, Dr Anthony Fauci, to call on former President Donald Trump to encourage his supporters to get vaccinated.

Meanwhile, experts are urging Americans to take whichever vaccine is available to protect themselves and avoid delays.

“When people come in, I always advise them to get the vaccine that’s available because you never know what vaccine is going to be available the next time,” Reham Awad, a pharmacy intern in the Chicago area, told Al Jazeera this week.

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Erdogan urges end to Ukraine tension, offers Turkey’s support | Conflict News




Turkish president says tensions between Kyiv and Moscow over Donbass conflict have to be resolved through dialogue.

Turkey’s President Recep Tayyip Erdogan has called for the “worrying” developments in eastern Ukraine’s Donbass region to come to an end after meeting his Ukrainian counterpart in Istanbul, adding Turkey was ready to provide any necessary support.

Erdogan and Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy held talks in Istanbul on Saturday amid tensions between Kyiv and Moscow over the long-running conflict in Donbass.

Speaking at a news conference alongside Zelenskyy, Erdogan said he hoped the conflict would be resolved peacefully, through dialogue based on diplomatic customs, in line with international laws and Ukraine’s territorial integrity.

“Our main goal is that the Black Sea continues to be a sea of peace, tranquility and cooperation,” Erdogan said.

Zelenskyy said the views of Kyiv and Ankara coincided regarding the threats in the region and as well as responses to those threats.

Erdogan stressed that Turkey’s cooperation with Ukraine in the defence industry, which was the main item on the meeting’s agenda, was not a move against any third countries.

Al Jazeera’s Sinem Koseoglu, reporting from Istanbul, said Ukraine was purchasing Turkey’s military drones.

She also said that “new generation drones will be equipped with the Ukrainian engines”.

Regional tensions

Zelenskyy’s visit to Turkey comes amid renewed tensions in eastern Ukraine, where Ukrainian forces and Russia-backed separatists have been fighting since 2014.

In a visit to troops there this week, Zelenskyy said breaches of a July truce were increasing.

Separatist authorities have also accused Ukrainian forces of violating the ceasefire.

Russia has reinforced its troops along the border and warned Ukraine against trying to retake control of the separatist-controlled territory.

Kyiv rejects that it is preparing for an offensive. The Russian military buildup has raised concerns in the United States and Europe.

The Turkish and Russian presidents spoke on the phone on Friday. Among the issues discussed was Ukraine.

The Kremlin said President Vladimir Putin expressed concern that Ukraine “recently resumed dangerous provocations on the contact line”.

Turkey is a NATO member. But Erdogan and Putin have forged a close personal relationship, sealing energy and trade deals.

They have also negotiated for opposing sides in conflicts, including Syria, Libya and Nagorno-Karabakh.

Erdogan’s office also said he would discuss with Zelenskyy the living conditions of Crimean Tatars, who have ethnic links to Turks. Moscow annexed the Crimean Peninsula in 2014.

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Libya kicks off delayed COVID-19 vaccination drive | Coronavirus pandemic News




Prime Minister Abdul Hamid Dbeibah receives shot on live television, urges Libyans to register online for their own vaccinations.

Libya has launched its delayed COVID-19 vaccination drive, with Abdul Hamid Dbeibah, prime minister of the country’s new unity government, getting his shot on live television.

Officially, Libya has registered a total of about 167,000 coronavirus cases, including more than 2,800 deaths, out of a population of seven million. Its healthcare system has struggled to cope during the pandemic, strained by years of political turmoil and violence.

After the vaccination of Dbeibah on Saturday at the headquarters of Libya’s Centre for Disease Control on the outskirts of the capital, Tripoli, Health Minister Ali al-Zenati was next to receive a jab.

Libya has so far received 200,000 doses of Russia’s Sputnik V vaccine, alongside more than 57,600 AstraZeneca shots, the latter delivered through the COVAX programme for lower and middle-income countries.

Dbeibah urged fellow citizens to register online for their own vaccinations. He has earmarked the vaccination campaign as a policy priority, alleging that the delivery of the shots was hindered by outgoing authorities.

“The arrival of vaccines has been delayed by political, not financial, considerations,” he said.

Dbeibah’s interim Government of National Unity was sworn in last month [Mahmud Turkia/AFP]

Dbeibah was selected earlier this year through a United Nations-sponsored Libyan dialogue to lead the country to national elections in December.

His government replaces two warring administrations based in Tripoli and the country’s east, the latter loyal to renegade military commander Khalifa Hafar. The rival authorities have given their backing to the new administration, adding to tentative hopes that Libya can exit a decade of crisis.

‘Better late than never’

The World Health Organization said on Thursday that two new variants of the coronavirus are present in Libya, which has lately been detecting about 1,000 new daily infections.

No lockdown measures are currently in place, and while masks are obligatory in public places, the measure is widely flouted.

“I feel sorry that the vaccine arrived late in Libya after thousands were infected. But better late than never,” shop owner Ali al-Hadi told Reuters news agency, adding that his wife had been sick with COVID-19 and recovered.

Many Libyans fear the vaccination campaign could be marred by political infighting or favouritism after years of unrest.

“We hope the health ministry will steer away from political conflicts so that services can reach patients,” said housewife Khawla Muhammad, 33.

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