Category Archives: general

Greatest photographs: the funeral of Ayatollah Khomeini, June 1989

[Originally published in this blog 28 October 2006]

I saw this photograph for the first time in the June 1989 edition of Time magazine while waiting for my turn at the doctor’s:

At that time, the magazine described it as the only known picture of the funeral to travel outside Iran.

Time magazine describes it succintly as follows:

“The funeral of the Ayatullah Ruhollah Khomeini ignited an emotional outpouring from his fanatical followers that Westerners found as bizarre, frightening — and ultimately incomprehensible ***

While the Ayatullah’s body lay in state inside a refrigerated glass box, the crowd of mourners in Tehran became so thick that eight were reportedly crushed to death. The next day, as a helicopter brought the open wooden coffin containing Khomeini’s remains to the city’s Behesht-e Zahra cemetery, nearly a million mourners thrust forward in the blistering heat and choking dust, many wailing and pounding their heads as they groped to touch the body and snatch a piece of the linen burial shroud.

Some managed to surge past a force of Revolutionary Guards, clambering into the casket to plant kisses on the Imam’s face. The corpse spilled to the ground, bare feet protruding from beneath the white shroud. As the 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. Again arms flailed and chants of “Death to America!” filled the air as the helicopter touched down. Although barricades held most of the crowd at bay, the Guards were forced to make a frantic push past the outstretched hands to deliver the coffin to the grave site. At the last instant, the metal lid of the casket was ripped off, and the body was rolled into the grave, in keeping with an Islamic tradition that requires that the dead be interred in only a shroud. The grave was quickly covered with concrete slabs and a large freight container to prevent delirious mourners from exhuming the corpse. By the end of the ceremony, more than 440 people had been hospitalized and an additional 10,800 had been treated for injuries.”

This is Daniel Pipes’ description, dated August 1989:

The death of Ayatollah Ruhollah Musavi Khomeini on June 4 was mourned by millions of his followers with an extravagance that surprised even the Iranian authorities. Time and again, funeral plans were disrupted by gigantic mobs unwilling to give way either to schedules or politicians. The scene in Tehran was one of unrelieved chaos. In the traditional Shi`i manner, men pounded their chests and flagellated themselves with chains. Some sacrificed sheep and some shouted, “We wish we were dead, so not to see our beloved imam dead.” Others ran 25 miles to the cemetery. The grave dug for Khomeini’s body was occupied by mourners who refused to leave. The authorities appealed to citizens to stay away from Khomeini’s house and from the cemetery, but to no avail.

Fire trucks sprayed water on mourners in an effort to keep them from fainting in the intensity of the June heat and the press of humanity. According to official sources, 10,879 people were injured and received on-the-spot medical attention, 438 were taken to hospitals, and eight died in the crush to view Khomeini’s body. In the cemetery, mourners climbed on buses the better to catch a glimpse of the body, and in one case the roof of a bus collapsed, injuring those sitting inside. `Ali Khamene’i, the president of the republic, could not even reach the special stand set up for dignitaries. The special stand for state officials and foreign dignitaries almost collapsed under pressure of the crowd.

The height of frenzy occurred at the gravesite itself. Bringing the body by land vehicle was out of the question, so it arrived by helicopter. The first time the helicopter landed, the crowd swarmed in and grabbed pieces of the shroud, causing the corpse actually to fall to the ground. After fifteen frantic minutes, the coffin was put back on the helicopter, which then bore the body away. In an attempt to thin out the crowd, it was announced that the funeral had been postponed by a day. The trick worked, as many went home. Then, six hours after the first attempt, a second effort at a helicopter landing was made. This time more guards were around and the body was placed in a metal casket. Still, it was not easy. As the Iranian news agency described it: “The grave was only ten meters away but the pushing and shoving of thousands made it seem like kilometers. It took ten terrible minutes to be able to put the casket down near the grave.” Once the body had finally been buried, concrete blocks were placed on top of it.


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