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From Dust to Lunch: Jordanian Christians Decry Cost of Funeral Feast

Tribal hospitality demands feeding the 500. But believers pinched by poverty call for cultural changes that still preserve honor.
From Dust to Lunch: Jordanian Christians Decry Cost of Funeral Feast
Image: Mohammad Abu Ghosh / AP Images
A Jordanian woman sitting beside the grave of a relative.

To honor the dead in Jordan, one must feed the living.

But in solidarity with the poor, leading Jordanian Christians are calling for a change in funeral customs.

Shared with wider Muslim society, certain Christian practices are similar to Western norms. Upon the announcement of death, the bereaved family makes arrangements through the church to conduct a memorial service. The casket is then conveyed to the cemetery, where hymns are sung and the traditional “dust to dust” is prayed over the loved one. And in somber conclusion, a line of condolences forms as the pastor or priest extends the family invitation to take part in a luncheon of remembrance.

But in Jordan, this may involve up to a thousand people.

“Culture requires that if you attend my funeral, I will come to yours,” said Nabeeh Abbassi, president of the Jordanian Baptist Convention. “But that is a lot of food, and increasingly, many cannot afford it.”

An average gathering is between 300 and 600 people, he said. It includes immediate family, extended relatives, and almost all residents of the village or city quarter. In a culture of honor and shame, it would be a great insult not to share in a neighbor’s grief.

The meal is the Jordanian national dish of mansaf, lamb meat served with rice and topped with nuts and a sauce of fermented dried yogurt. The dish is presented on large circular trays, and mourners gather by gender to eat with their right hands while standing.

When Abbassi’s mother died nine years ago, 500 people came to honor her life. Expenses nearly reached $10,000, with only $1,500 due to the funeral. Like many Jordanians, he contributed to a monthly family allotment to cover such costs. But at the time of the funeral, the savings totaled only $700, which the five siblings decided to give to their father.

Generations ago, Abbassi explained, tribal culture involved relatives and clan members coming from great distances for a three-day period of mourning. Before the age of automobiles and restaurants, the hosting family provided hospitality for their guests—but each came with a contribution of coffee, rice, or sugar, with many bringing a live lamb to slaughter. Often, they left behind an excess.

“We keep some of the culture, but neglect the best of it,” Abbassi said. “Living in the 21st century, we are burdened by the 20th—it doesn’t make any sense.”

He advises a change in service time—if held later in the day, people will have already eaten lunch. As many Jordanians live in Amman, the capital, travelers from most outlying cities are no more than an hour away by car.

Honor, however, runs deeper than reciprocity.

“No one wants to be thought of as cheap,” said Daoud Kuttab, an award-winning Palestinian journalist living in Jordan. “And the number of people at a funeral is almost viewed as an indicator of social standing.”

An evangelical, Kuttab is playing a leading role in promoting the boycott of traditional mansaf practices. As editor-in-chief of Milhilard (Salt of the Earth), his coverage seeks to get Christian church and community leaders on record about their stances regarding the funeral customs. So far, the Greek Orthodox archbishop of Sebastia (Samaria) and the Lutheran bishop of Jordan and the Holy Land have indicated their opposition to the pan-Levantine tradition.

Kuttab’s advocacy was actually sparked by a Muslim decision. Noticing how the Shawabkeh clan in northwest Jordan publicly banned the mansaf meal for all but close family relations, he wondered if Christians could do the same.

Survey responses from the partner publication Asha’ir Mesihiya (Christian Tribes) were overwhelmingly positive in favor of reform. But some people nonetheless expressed a cultural unease.

“Share their sorrows, but not their banquets,” wrote Michel Ghawi. “But the matter is not easy—it is a shame if we do not go.”

The issue of reputation is deeply ingrained in Jordanian mentality, a reality affirmed by Ibrahim Nassar, pastor of Church of Glory in Marka, a lower middle-class area in east Amman. The bereaved family must not risk marring the status of the deceased as a generous person, but meanwhile, everyone else is calculating the financial costs and dreading their turn.

“People are in very difficult circumstances economically,” he said. “They are worrying, ‘If my father or mother die, what will I do? Where will I borrow money from? What will I do if the bank doesn’t give me a loan?’”

In 2022 Jordan had an unemployment rate of 23 percent, and the World Food Program stated that the country suffers slow economic growth and an inflation-induced increased cost of living. And according to an Arab Barometer survey, nearly half (48%) of the population reported they sometimes or often run out of food before being able to afford more.

A Muslim friend from a large tribe told Nassar that his family took out a loan of nearly $30,000 to cover the cost of funeral proceedings. But last year, when his own father and uncle died within six months of each other, the Nassar family decided on an alternate custom: They gave the money to the poor.

The practice has been repeated by others.

“Such generosity will address the issue of honor, avoiding whispers of stinginess,” said Imad Shehadeh, president of Jordan Evangelical Theological Seminary. “I’m not sure if it will succeed, but if we can have a string of funerals without mansaf, the idea may really spread.”

But it may risk a perceived eternal reward. For most Jordanian Christians, the funeral meal is a prayer of mercy for the deceased. Especially in the historic Catholic and Orthodox churches, a priest will bid guests to the family home to “eat over the spirit of the departed.”

Evangelical pastors will substitute the language of mercy with a “meal of fellowship,” but many ordinary believers still link the meal to religious obligation.

“It is appointed for man to die once, and then the judgment,” Shehadeh said, quoting Hebrews 9:27. “Calling for mercy after death is unbiblical.”

Bassam Shahatit, a Melkite Greek Catholic priest and head of his denomination’s ecclesiastic court, said that many Christians misunderstand the traditional “God have mercy upon him.” Primarily meant to comfort the family, it places the departed in the hand of God, who is by nature merciful. But whereas some popularly believe that such prayers will impact eternal fate, it is Jesus alone who will judge. The substitute “God comfort your heart,” he said, is scripturally sound and offers better condolence.

Shahatit nonetheless commended the funeral meal in its ideal, as it is based on biblical principle. Weep with those who weep, taught Jesus, for the presence of many guests helps the family to not feel alone in their grief. And in the Old Testament, Abraham similarly hustled to provide generously for his three mysterious visitors in Genesis 18.

Some interpretations see the supernatural guests as a pre-incarnation theophany.

“‘Freely you have received, freely give’—this is Christian spirituality,” said Shahatit, quoting Matthew 10:8. “And when you welcome others to your table, you welcome God.”

Unfortunately, like the misunderstandings around spoken “mercy,” the mansaf has been corrupted by culture. Everyone tries to show off their generosity, while avoiding any appearance of poverty. In solidarity with the poor and middle class, Shahatit favors canceling the tradition—or greatly reforming it.

For example, in Syria, the funeral mansaf has been replaced by mujaddera, a rice dish served with lentils and caramelized onions, thus helping alleviate much of the expense. Due to the deteriorating economic situation, Shahatit said a kilo of meat now costs half the average monthly salary.

Kuttab said that as a smaller religious community, Christians might be better able to reach a collective decision to change funeral culture. But being, on average, slightly wealthier than Muslims, Christians may also be better able to tolerate the costs. As for himself, he will no longer provide for the funeral meal, nor partake in it.

Abbassi, who will put the question to Baptist pastors in an upcoming convention gathering, wavered only slightly in his resolve. Family obligations are strong, he admitted, but to pick and choose which funerals he attends would show an ungodly favoritism. A group decision provides protection for all.

But who will go first?

“As pastors, we have to encourage the families to stop the tradition,” Abbassi said. “And if more and more people make this choice, the custom will fade away.”

Additional reporting contributed by Heather Surls. The Arabic translation of this CT article was provided by Milhilard after publication.

[ This article is also available in العربية. ]

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