This is not one of the most joyful topics I’ve ever written about, but it’s something I encounter a surprising amount in my life here and there are enough differences between practices in Algeria and other parts of the world that I think it’s worth noting. In the unfortunate event that you should have to attend an Algerian funeral, here are a few pointers:
Before I came to Algeria, in my 28 years of life, I had attended a grand total of two funerals and had never seen a dead person. This is partly because I have been blessed and lucky not to lose many people in my life, but it’s also a reflection of our cultural approach to death; in the UK, you don’t see dead people and you only really attend the funerals of people that you knew well.
Since I moved to Algeria 18 months ago, I have been to five funerals and seen four cadavers. And while that’s partly due to a really atrociously unlucky year, much of it results from the fact that I am socially required to cast the net much wider here. In Algeria, rather than basing my decision to attend a funeral on how well I knew the person who has passed away, as I might in the UK, here it is common for me to attend a funeral based on my wish to show my respect to those who are still living. So, for example, you might choose to attend the funeral of the parent or sibling of a colleague, or the funeral of a neighbour, even if you never actually met them or even knew their name. Or you might attend the funeral of an elderly relative that you’ve never met because they were important to other members of the family with whom you’re close.
In the UK, and perhaps in some other parts of Europe or the US, we often feel that we’ll be imposing on someone in their time of grief if we choose to attend the funeral of their loved one. We don’t want to create extra work for them or require them to uphold social graces. My boss and colleagues, for example, are the very last people I would want to see if I had – god forbid – lost someone I loved. In Algeria, on the other hand, you may be seen as rude or unfeeling if you don’t demonstrate your support.
My personal approach has become: If in doubt, go. Even if you only stay for a short while. You can’t do any damage to your relationships by attending and you may cause problems for yourself if you don’t.
Incidentally, if you can’t attend a funeral because you’re out of the country or for some other reason, it is wise to pick up the phone and call in your condolences. If you can’t speak to the very close members of the family themselves – as they will tend to be rather overwhelmed – call a family friend and make sure they pass the message on. Then you can always call the family again later on once everything has calmed down.
One final note on whether to attend; while women don’t usually attend the burial at the cemetery itself, they will often visit the grave on the third day of the funeral and in some families it is considered inappropriate to visit the cemetery if you are pregnant. If you do happen to be pregnant and it’s not obvious, it’s worth checking if it’s okay for you to attend this specific part of the funeral.
Algerian funerals happen much more quickly than you might be accustomed to. For example, if a person passes away in the early hours of the morning, it would not be at all unusual for them to be buried the later the same day. However, unless you’re a man and very close to the deceased, you wouldn’t necessarily be required to attend the burial itself. More commonly, you would visit the house of the person who has passed away, or his or her relatives.
The main part of the funeral tends to last three days. On the first, the body – which is usually kept at home when possible, or brought home from the hospital – will be taken for burial. Close friends and family members would usually visit the home for this symbolic moment, when the body is carried out of the house by male relatives. This is generally followed by a meal at home in the evening.
The second day of mourning is often quieter than the first, particularly in the morning, with some visitors passing by the home in the afternoon. Again, there will usually be an evening meal for visitors.
On the third day, the number of visitors picks up again so it’s a good time to visit if you’re not all that close to the deceased but want to pay your respects to the family.
If you’re very close to the family, you may choose to attend on all three days of the funeral, particularly for the evening meal. But if you’re only aiming to drop in, plan to visit on one of the days in the mid-afternoon. Otherwise, if you visit close to meal times you will usually be offered a meal and it can be difficult to refuse.
Unlike in some parts of the world, there isn’t a standardised dress-code for Algerian funerals, so you don’t need to worry about dressing all in black or wearing a smart suit.
You can more or less wear your everyday clothes, whilst keeping in mind the gravity of the occasion. In other words, you probably want to avoid shorts and T-shirts, short skirts or anything with a slogan or bright pattern. You know, just use basic common sense.
In some families, women will cover their hair with a veil at certain times, such as when the body is carried out of the house or when visiting the cemetery later on. They may do this even if they don’t usually wear a veil and you might feel that you want to join them as a mark of respect. If you’re heading to an Algerian funeral and you’re not sure of the protocol, it can be helpful to sling a light shawl or cotton scarf around your neck, or in your bag, so you have the option of covering up if you feel you want to.
Also, if you’re a woman, you might want to avoid wearing heavy makeup or strong perfumes, or excessive jewellery when attending Algerian funerals. Again, the aim is to preserve the idea that this is not a social occasion for celebration of getting dressed up.
Since a funeral is not a standard social occasion, there’s no need to worry too much about being the perfect guest. The chances are, nobody will notice or care if you turn up empty handed. However, if you want to be helpful and bring something with you, it is common to bring a pack of nice coffee or even a box of sugar cubes along with you. The family will have to deal with lots of visitors over the course of the funeral, and in the days that follow, so coffee and sugar are practical, helpful things to bring.
Alternatively, you might want to bring some baked goods for the family to serve their visitors alongside tea and coffee. If so, bear in mind that this isn’t a festive occasion, so you’ll want to steer clear of anything too decorative or celebratory. In other words, no traditional baklawa-style cakes, decorated biscuits or fancy eclairs or macarons. Instead, go for something simple like brioche buns or plain biscuits and bring enough to be shared about.
As I have mentioned, Algerians seem to put fewer barriers between the dead and the living than you might be used to, which can be a little disconcerting at first. If you arrive at the house in which the funeral is taking place, before the body has been taken away for burial, you may find that the deceased person has been laid out on the living room floor, shrouded in a white sheet and sometimes covered with a blanket. While the person’s face will generally be covered, it’s worth being forewarned if you’re likely to be overwhelmed by the sight of what is clearly a cadaver. Other families prefer to lay out their loved one on a bed in a separate room and may, or may not, allow close family and friends to go in and say their goodbyes.
It is also worth being aware that some families prefer not to greet each other with the standard Algerian kiss on each cheek during funerals because it is a time for mourning. If you’re unsure, hang back and wait for the other person to initiate the greeting.
Depending on the family, there may be separate rooms for men and women to sit. Before sitting down – there will often be chairs or mattresses set out around the walls of the room – try to identify the main family members of the deceased person and offer your condolences. Afterwards, it is usual to sit and talk quietly with those around you.
As I touched on above, if you arrive in the evening it’s likely that your hosts will try to offer you some food (frequently soup followed by couscous and then fruit and dates). At this point, the best thing to do is usually to accept. Feeding guests in the name of a deceased loved one is frequently seen as a kind of ‘baraka’ or ‘blessing’ on their behalf, so by eating you’re allowing them to fulfill this act of blessing. Even if you’re not hungry, if you’ve arrived at dinner time, try to at least have a mouthful or two for the ‘baraka’.
As with any social rituals, there will always be differences between one family and the next. But being aware of the general points above may help you on your way if you have the misfortune of finding yourself at a funeral in Algeria.