Khomeini’s Funeral, 1989

The great bogeyman of the West, Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeni died in Iran in June 1989. His funeral was so massive and so frenzied that his body was toppled into the crowd as two million people gathered to pay their respect to Shia Islam’s holy man. (See the news footage).

To cover-up the humiliating chaos, the Iranian authorities tried to confiscate every roll of film taken that day. A handful of photos escaped out and made it to The Associated Press in London next day and it shows the emotional outpouring at the funeral that reflected both Iranians’ grief over the death of the leader who seemed to embody their revolution and the emphasis Shia Muslims place on martyrdom and death. When the Ayatollah’s coffin was brought to Behesht-e-Zahara cemetery in Teheran, wailing mourners ripped the body from the flimsy box and fought to touch it.

“Westerners found [it] as bizarre, frightening — and ultimately incomprehensible”, wrote Time. As a helicopter brought the open wooden coffin containing the mortal remains of the Imam, nearly a million mourners thrust forward in the blistering heat and choking dust to touch the body and snatch a piece of the linen burial shroud, leading to an ignominious exposing of the remains.

The corpse spilled to the ground, bare feet protruding from beneath the white shroud. As the Revolutionary Guards beat back the crowds, firing shots in the air and spraying fire hoses, other soldiers shoved the body and coffin back into the chopper. It lifted off with the casket hanging precariously out the door. Some five hours passed before there was another, successful attempt to deliver the body to its final resting place, this time encased in a metal coffin.

With chants of “Death to America!”, the guards ripped of the metal lid to inter the body in only a shroud in accordance with the Islamic tradition. The grave was quickly covered with concrete slabs and a large freight container to prevent the mourners from exhuming the corpse. By the end of the ceremony, eight people had died, more than 440 people had been hospitalized and an additional 10,800 had been treated for injuries.”

See Khomeni’s Iran on The Times and a reflection 20 years on New Statesman.


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