Interview with "Nisa"

Janice L. Pasch

I have written up this interview, to the best of my ability, given a slight language barrier and some questions between the two of us as to the best words to use for certain translations. "Nisa" asked that I stress that these are her viewpoints and not necessarily totally representative of her race, religion, or country. Many of the rituals surrounding death are driven by her religion of Islam.

"Nisa" is a 28 year old, married, upper-middle class female from Malaysia. Her race in Malay, one of several originating in Malaysia. Her religion is Islam.

In "Nisa's" culture, when a loved one dies, the most important thing is to prepare the body and hold a funeral as soon as possible, no more than 24 hours after death. They believe the body suffers if this is not done. Initially, after death, the corpse is placed in a central location of the house and covered with cloth. Members of the family and friends pray and read verses from the Koran continuously. A designated person comes to clean the body, through a series of stages, in preparation for burial. Orifices in the body are stuffed with a cloth covered cotton. Then, the body is recovered with a white cloth, hands folded right over left (of religious significance), and the face left exposed. Family members kiss the deceased and then the face is covered. It is very important at this point, that family members do not cry. It is believed that if the tears of the survivors fall on the face of the deceased it will make the deceased suffer.

A simple wooden coffin is constructed by members of the community. The body is placed into it at the home, along with a special root herb, which is meant to mask the smell of death. "Nisa" could not remember the name of this herb, but said it is a very common smell. The coffin is then transported to the cemetery behind the mosque. Transportation is usually by hand, by friends and family members. In more metropolitan areas it may be transported by private vehicle. At the site of burial, it is very important that the women cover themselves as much as possible, in respect of the dead. Men wear special formal clothing and hats. Most family members and friends will remain at the graveside for burial of the casket. Pandn leaves are cut into pieces and sprinkled on the grave (significance unknown).

During this period, it is custom for family members to eat very scarcely, in respect of the deceased. After the burial, friends bring food and donations to the house, and in some families, all will eat, pray, and celebrate the deceased for a period of seven days. Some families may only do this for one night. The most important ritual throughout the entire period is constant prayer and readings from the Koran. Family members visit the grave as often as is possible. Annually, a period to remember the deceased is at the end of Ramadan, called EID, where family members and friends visit the graves of loved ones, poor a jar of water on the grave, and pray and read from the Koran.

Comfort after a loss, comes primarily from prayer. Family members and the community also openly support the bereaved individuals. It is common for condolences to be sent in the form of cards or letters. "Appropriate" crying is encouraged and understood, but loud displays of grief are not considered to be appropriate and are thought to make the deceased suffer. Healthy grief is seen as staying calm, rational, and praying almost constantly. Death is seen as fate, and a normal course of life. Death reminds the living that life is short and that they are to do good things while alive. There is not real ritual for a period of public mourning. Survivors are expected to return to normal life as soon as possible. They may take one day off of work, following the death of a loved one, by showing the death certificate of the deceased. It is popular for surviving loved ones to take the possessions of the deceased, and wear them frequently.

"Nisa" did not believe than any of these rituals contributed to the pain of loss.

In the religion of Islam, there is believed to be a "Judgment Day", when the world will come to an end, and all of humanity will die. At this time, the souls of all of the dead will be judged to be "good" and sent to the Garden (heaven), or "bad" and sent to hell. The souls are constantly evaluated while in the grave up to this "Judgment Day". It is believed if you did things in life, especially if you were a teacher and shared your knowledge, or if you raised good religious children, you will be judged "good". For those souls judged "good", "Judgment Day" will be perceived as coming quickly, for those judged "bad", "Judgment Day" will take a very long time, in a sense punishing the individual for being bad. Judgment is done by "good" and "bad" religious messengers.

"Nisa" states that currently, group support and counseling are not popular in Malaysia, except in the most urban of areas. She does think it can be very good and very useful, and would like to see more of it in her country. She thinks it would be especially helpful in school settings.

I very much enjoyed the process of doing this interview. I always like talking to individuals from other countries, as to their ways of life. I was somewhat surprised when "Nisa" commented that she did not think that any of her cultural rituals regarding grief would contribute to the individual's difficulty in getting over that grief - i.e. the restrictions on overt crying, public display, stress to return to normal almost immediately, etc. "Nisa" is a student in a Counseling program and even after Western education, did not see these to be problematic.

I also felt myself react to her comments about her Islam religion, and the impending Judgment Day - the end of the world. I asked if she expected this during her lifetime, and she said she thought it was quite possible. I asked her how she felt, knowing she has a small daughter, with the world coming to an end - and very calmly she said that it was inevitable, a given, and she knew that she had been a "good" person in her lifetime, so she would go to the Garden, and be a peace. I was just impacted by how she approached this topic, and the sense of peace she seemed to have surrounding all of it.

Written for Grief in a Family Context, HPER F317, Spring semester, 1997.
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(C) 1997, Janice Pasch. All rights reserved. Interested parties may contact her through the course instructor, at