There was a time, in the early days of COVID, when death notices posted around Tehran carried triumphant statements predicting the pandemic’s demise.
Back in February 2020, when only China, Iran, and Italy were facing COVID, it was possible to imagine COVID’s “defeat.” Beside pictures of the deceased and poems to bless their memory, death notices were adorned with sentences like:
“Due the spread of Corona, and taking into account the health of all our dear loved ones, a funeral will not be held.”
Followed by: “God willing, after the eradication [lit. uprooting] of this disease, a memorial service will be held.”
These sentences spoke not only to limitations imposed on social gatherings to promote public health, but also to a logistical nightmare behind the scenes. An avalanche of death threw calculations of the space needed for burial out of whack. Overflowing cemeteries created a problem of logistics – how to preserve bodies long enough that space could be found (or dug) to bury them before decomposing. The temporal cycle of death was interrupted. There was nowhere for the dead to go; much less for the living to gather.
As the first wave gave way to a summer of relaxed restrictions, funerals resumed. But many of those who promised to hold ceremonies “after the pandemic” dithered, uncertain of whether the promised “after” had arrived. A linear timeline once clear to all – “Corona shekast midahim, We will crush COVID,” as posters across town read – suggested “after-COVID” would be obvious, a popular victory over an evil enemy.
But “after” became more nebulous when COVID morphed into a global problem, a tragedy continuing far into the future.
These days, death posters continue to announce the lack of funeral services. But references to a collective victory over virous-e manhous, the “accursed virus,” are gone. In its place are thousands of individual tragedies and a limping vaccination campaign. “We will crush COVID" has become more ironic than originally intended.
The timeline of “we are all in this together” melts away. Divergent futures emerge, with the West arriving in “post-COVID” and the rest as if in a different era. Even as cemetery space frees up, guaranteed by logistical estimates in line with new pandemic realities, the postponed funerals of yesteryear in Iran continue to be put off, anticipating a future whose arrival is still as uncertain as ever.
Alex Shams is a PhD student of Anthropology at the University of Chicago. His research focuses on the politics of sacred space in the Middle East.