When we got back to Istanbul, Elif’s grandfather died. He was 86 and could remember in his youth, bowing to the Ottoman Pa?a. He fell down the spiral staircase leading to his apartment, not because he was old, but because that staircase is a deathtrap. He was taken to the military hospital, where he caught pneumonia, and two weeks later he was dead. Elif’s grandfather was a lifelong military man. He was a levazim, the “necessary guy.” When there’s a war, he’s the Hollywood producer: he brings food to the land, builds bridges, makes roads, organizes the event. He lived long enough to have lower soldiers as servants, a practice now made illegal. Like most other senior officers, he paid money into a funeral club to ensure a proper military burial.
We went to the mosque, where Dilek washed the body; there was a crowd of thousands in attendance. I knew that military men were revered, but I didn’t know he was so popular…until I found out that Turkish pop star Baris Manco was also being buried at the same mosque that morning. A woman I’d never met threw herself on the ground, crying in front of Elif’s grandfather’s coffin. His body was loaded onto a catafalque. A band marched behind it and played military music. He was taken to one of Istanbul’s oldest and most historic cemeteries. It was the greatest funeral I’d ever been to in my life. I loved it. When we arrived at the cemetery, the hole was already ready. They opened the coffin, and his body was wrapped in a sheet; they took the body out of the coffin and placed it into the hole. We all started to fill the hole back up with our shovels. After awhile I realized what hard work ditch-digging is. Every part of my body began to hurt. I was standing there on greasy, gooshy ground. I saw parts of skeletons become unearthed around me and fragments of bone pop up by my feet. I realized that space was at a premium in Istanbul and that Elif’s grandfather was literally being buried with his ancestors. As time went on, most members of Elif’s family began to drop out, exhausted, and eventually only two people remained: me, and this old guy wearing a vest, who I assumed was a great-uncle. I kept plugging away, determined not to be shown up by a 70-year-old man. Only after I finally had to quit from exhaustion did they inform me that he was the gravedigger.