Action to take after a death in Turkey
Death at home
If the person who has died has been receiving medical treatment, it is customary for you to call out your family doctor to certify the death and initiate the steps needed to deal with the body. If the doctor does attend, he will complete the necessary paperwork and issue an officially stamped death certificate (ölüm belgesi).
This is, however, not strictly needed and an alternative arrangement can sometimes be quicker and more straightforward.
This alternative is to call out the Municipal Funeral Department (Belediye Cenaze Isleri). The Municipal Funeral Department performs an absolutely central task when dealing with deaths in Turkey.
As the name suggests, the Municipal Funeral Department is a part of the municipal government, and is based in your local town hall. They are paid for out of the taxes that you pay.
Once they have been called, the Municipal Funeral Department will attend very quickly: often within a few minutes.
If a doctor has not already been called, they will arrange for a doctor to attend and certify the death. This will not necessarily be your normal doctor.
When a doctor attends – whether it is your own doctor or the doctor arranged by the Municipal Funeral Department – the doctor will have to decide (based upon the facts of the case and a brief examination of the body) whether there is anything suspicious about the death. If there is, he will involve the police and the prosecutor. See below.
Assuming everything about the death appears to be routine and in order, the doctor will certify the death and the Funeral Department will arrange for the removal of the body to a local mosque.
The body will be washed. Depending on where you are, the body will be washed in a special room at the local cemetery (usually by professional body washers) or in the house or the garden of the house where the person died (either by professional body washers or by members of the family).
Various Islamic rituals are usually performed in relation to the body, but these can be dispensed with if the family indicates that the person who died was not a Muslim.
At the mosque – unless an alternative is agreed, or the washing has already taken place – the body will be washed and wrapped in a white shroud. This is in accordance with Islamic tradition. Professional washers (male and female) are, again, usually employed for this purpose.
Whilst all this is happening, the Municipal Funeral Department will complete all of the paperwork that is necessary to recognise the death so that the body can be released for a funeral.
In addition to making the arrangements for the funeral, the Municipal Funeral Department will also take care of some of the practical issues arising out of a funeral. For example, they can arrange for the funeral to be announced (often by the hodja – the man responsible for making these announcements – and the mosque’s public-address system) and for food, chairs and a funeral car to be provided at the time of the funeral.
The Municipal Funeral Department is not permitted to make these arrangements for foreigners unless there is evidence that they have converted to Islam. In many cases, they may never have come across a deceased foreigner before, and so can be uncertain as to what needs to be done. This, sometimes, leads to them entering ‘default mode’ and taking the body to the mosque.
The reason the Municipal Funeral Department takes care of all of these steps is largely to do with time. Funerals in Turkey (and other hot Islamic countries) tend to take place very quickly for both religious and practical reasons. Often, if a person died in the morning, the funeral will take place after prayers that afternoon. If he or she dies in the afternoon, the body will usually remain in the mosque overnight and be buried the following morning. This works because, until recently, most of the time the deceased’s family lived close to the deceased.
Increasingly, even for Turkish people, you will find that families can be widely dispersed throughout Turkey – though with the majority still in one place – and so it is acceptable for the ceremony to be delayed to allow relatives to arrive from distant parts of the country. However, this delay will seldom be more than a day or two.
Of course, in the case of many foreigners, the relatives might live on the other side of the world and so it might be necessary to delay the funeral for several days or several weeks. This can be arranged, but the body will have to be released from the care of the Municipal Funeral Department. In the parts of Turkey where there are significant numbers of foreigners, there are likely to be specialist funeral services who can provide this facility and deal with whatever other arrangements (such as a non-Islamic religious funeral) might be requested.
The funeral, whenever it takes place, will normally be attended by the deceased’s family and neighbours, who will eat together after the funeral formalities have taken place.
Following the funeral, there is a period of mourning by the deceased’s relatives. During this period, if there is a widow/widower, they will generally not be left alone.
Within local Turkish tradition, partly rooted in Islam and partly rooted in antiquity, there are certain special days when it comes to the mourning of the deceased. The third, seventh, 40th and 52nd day after the person dies are particularly important.
Death in a Turkish hospital
If the deceased died in hospital, then it will be the hospital doctor who certifies death and decides whether there are any circumstances that justify the involvement of the police and prosecutor.
They will then issue a hospital death certificate and report the death to the Municipal Funeral Department.
From that point onwards, the procedure is the same as if the person had died at home.
Sometimes, someone will die elsewhere: for example, at the scene of a car crash or in a restaurant. In these cases, the police will inevitably be called and the body will be taken to a hospital.
From there on, the process is the same as if the death had taken place in a hospital.
Reporting a death to the authorities
It is the duty of the doctor who attends after a person has died to consider whether the death needs to be reported to the authorities. This will usually happen if the deceased died ‘out of the blue’: in other words, without there being any illness leading up for the death. It will also happen if the deceased died as a result of accident or violence.
It’s important to understand that the fact that the doctor refers the death to the prosecutor’s office does not mean that he suspects foul play. It is merely because the cause of the death is not superficially obvious and so further investigation is required.
If the doctor calls in the public prosecutor, they will attend with the police and carry out an inspection of the deceased’s body. Using their experience, they will then decide either to release the body immediately for burial or to arrange for a post-mortem/autopsy to help them establish the cause of death. If, after the autopsy, the prosecutor is satisfied that everything is in order, the prosecutor will release the body and the normal procedure will then be followed.
If not, it’s another story!