Armenian ‘Hokejash’: A Little Levity Helps the Healing

A funeral is a somber occasion, where an air of dignity and respect are the order of the day, but there is much to be said about some light-hearted humor interjected at the appropriate time to help start the healing process.

Armenians traditionally hold a hokejash following the religious service to honor the soul of the deceased. It is after this meal when those close to the family speak of the highlights and successes of the person who’s passed away.

Several people recently spoke at Steve Karadian’s hokejash, revealing the fine character this loving family man possessed. Steve had a friend, Aram (Sonny) Gavoor, who like himself was also prominent in the banking industry and active in the Armenian community.

Gavoor had this to say: “I had great admiration for Steve Karadian. We spoke weekly, bank to bank. Upper management thought he was outstanding. He was just a great guy. We spoke often during his illness.”

A group of us were sitting at the table with Steve’s daughter Julie and her husband Raffi DerManuelian. To add a little levity at the conclusion of the formal speeches, I started to tease tablemates Rose and George Mouradian about the adventuresome twosome’s camping trip to Alaska. A hungry bear had caught wind of an enticing aroma and had invaded the camp to locate the item. The bear soon scampered off into the woods, but not without the Mouradian’s stash of basterma.

I remembered that Steve’s wife, Anne Karadian, was possibly the only Armenian I ever knew who disliked basterma, and it seemed like a good time to bring that matter up. She absolutely hated the smell of basterma, but her husband loved it and frequently made basterma and eggs for himself.

Also sitting at our table was Marty Hochbaum, the husband of Julie’s friend Alison. I asked Marty if he knew what basterma was, and of course he did not. Julie began describing the spice and garlicky beef delicacy to Marty, and I continued my explanation: “Basterma is delicious. I call it the Armenian birth control.” The DerManuelians and everyone burst out laughing, and it was just what this table needed to lighten the mood.

Julie said her mother would have died laughing at the comment, adding, “She would not go near dad after he enjoyed his basterma. Maybe that is why they only had two kids! I remember my mother spraying air freshener all over the house because she could not stand the odor.”

Steve Karadian’s friend Chris Spounias told Julie the story about how the two of them, unknown to Anne, used to go into Highland Park, a blighted city, to collect bricks from the Karadian homestead on Pasadena Avenue, which had burned and fallen apart.

“You could take my dad out of Highland Park, but you could not take Highland Park out of my dad.”

“We wondered what all those bricks were piled in the garage. My dad swore Chris to secrecy because my mother worried about dad’s safety and she would have had a fit if she knew he was going into Highland Park.”

“My sister Stefanie went to dad’s house, retrieved one of those bricks and put it by his feet in the casket. Dad would have loved that.”

Scout masters Steve Karadian, George Mouradian, and George Krikorian had welcomed Movses Movsesian and his four sons into the St. Sarkis Church troupe of 25-30. The men even attended classes on proper teaching techniques for scoutmasters. Several young men became Eagle Scouts. They went on monthly camping trips and attended the Boy Scout Jamboree. To this day those scouts have respect for their scoutmasters.

Movsesian said Steve’s snoring was legendary. Steve called it serenading. He then added, “We played tricks on the newcomers. We always had a campfire, and of course smoke would get in your eyes no matter where you sat, so we would tell the new scouts to go to the next camp and ask the scoutmaster for a ‘smoke shifter.’”

Julie DerManuelian took her mother a dinner from the hokejash—telling her, “It was from church”—and a rose from her father’s casket. “If she only knew.”

Just days before passing away, Steve had been moved to the same facility where his wife is, and on Saturday a family picnic was held for everyone. “They loved going out for ice cream, and on this day they had ice cream together for the last time,” Julie said. “Mom kissed dad’s hand for the last time. Dad died the next day with the tricolor flag in his hand. Now I know everything has come full circle for my parents.”

Betty Apigian-Kessel

Betty Apigian-Kessel

Betty (Serpouhie) Apigian Kessel was born in Pontiac, Mich. Together with her husband, Robert Kessel, she was the proprietor of Woodward Market in Pontiac and has two sons, Bradley and Brant Kessel. She belonged to the St. Sarkis Ladies Guild for 12 years, serving as secretary for many of those years. During the aftermath of the earthquake in Armenia in 1988, the Detroit community selected her to be the English-language secretary and she happily dedicated her efforts to help the earthquake victims. She has a column in the Armenian Weekly entitled “Michigan High Beat.”


  1. What a poignant yet hilarious column this is, Serpouhie. I particularly love the ending, the shared ice-cream, the kiss, and the tricolour. The brick in the casket was perfect. The Egyptians knew that you should take a few meaningful things with you. They would be useful as “seed” in the destination. I once put in a box of 1941 Crayola crayon colours, unused, clean sharp points – except for one broken one. Another time, I used a daughter’s handmade ceramic cookie jar as an urn. They say “you can’t take it with you,” but who cares what “they” say. I have several of my favourite books and paint brushes picked out for the journey. Just in case. I have no intention of sitting around on fluffy white clouds.
    No comments on the basterma, Serpouhie, except to say that you now know two people who wouldn’t touch it with the proverbial ten foot pole!

  2. I have a problem with our obsession with death rituals.
    I am not sure if they are original Armenian, or we copied from others we lived with, but there is just too much.

    When a person dies, first we have the ‘tesaktsutiun’, a day or two before the funeral. Then the day of the funeral there is a couple hours of pre-ritual. Then the ritual at the actual placement of the coffin. Then ‘hokejash’. Then the 7-day mark. Then the 40-day mark. Then the 1-year mark, repeated annually. Then the 5 year mark. Useless expenditures of massive throwaway flower arrangements. It never ends.

    When forming a new family, i.e. potential new little lives, we have the ‘khoskap’ (the meeting and celebration between the immediate families): a beautiful tradition. Then ‘nshandook’ (getting engaged). Sometimes those two are combined. Then the wedding. And that’s it.

    I think it’s time we Armenians started gradually reviewing and either modifying or discarding some of our obsolete, counterproductive traditions.

    • I differ.

      Families need to grieve and the support of their extended families. I suppose that if a family wanted to dispense with some or all, they would, and often do. In the US, my experience is that we do not have the 2 pre-funeral rituals.

      The yearly observations are less and less common in my experience. They are requested by the families themselves, and serve as a sign of support for the family, and I think when the family opts for them, they get help from us all. I view these things as options some, but not most of use employ.

      They are also opportunities to pray for the souls of the dead, which is important, really the most important thing of all.

    • I’m with jda on this. Even though I am an atheist, I have taken great comfort from our beautiful ancient rituals during our family’s darkest hours.

  3. Jda:
    You wrote; “They are also opportunities to pray for the souls of the dead, which is important, really the most important thing of all.”

    As you know, prayer never has to be public. Anyone can pray anywhere, anytime, in any way, for any reason, or no reason. No one’s prayers, public or private, are better heard than those of any other person. The stumbling prayers of a small child are as meaningful as those of any priest or bishop. Perhaps even more so.
    I agree with you that families need to grieve, but many people choose to grieve in private. This does not mean that they have less respect or affection for the departed. Some of us will dance in the streets with you when there is a celebration, but need to be left alone to privately lick our sorrow and pain.
    Avery makes some good points.He isn’t calling for the elimination of public ritual and grief, just moderation. Serpouhie is also moderating public grieving by injecting much needed relief to it. Sometimes less is more.

    • You misunderstand my post, which is my problem for being unclear.
      Its alll a matter of family choice.

      We are encouraged by the founder of the Apostolic Church to pray and fast in secret, that is well known. However, we also come together in His name weekly to pray as a Christian community, and to reinforce ourselves with God-pleasing prayers and actions. Doing the latter does not detract from the importance of the former.

      The point I was making is merely this: nobody forces the families to have services or the various pre- and post funeral observances. If they want them, they have them. If they don’t, they don’t.

      There is a theraputic value to all in having these events: without full, painful, sometimes unbearable grieving, we lose the ability to expel a part of the suffering, which then comes out suddently or slowly months or years later when there is no community to help.

      So you can see that my choice would be for at least some of these events, while yours might not be. There are reasons in history and sacred tradition why we have these things available.

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