by Maysa Shawwa (Published in the LAU Tribune-Spring semester 2010)

Bachoura's crowded graveyard

She looks gorgeous in her dress. Her white-silky hair is nicely combed and shoved behind her shoulders. Her classic makeup makes her face angelic. She will sleep tonight in her wooden bed with mere silence … the insipid silence that creeps through the spines and leaves them chill. He washes and dresses a white sheet of cloth. Then, he finds himself in the mid of certain prayers in the mosque. Few hours later, he will be left alone in darkness; his face positioned towards stone. For both, Janette Aayan(died on 28th of March 2010) and Tawfeek Al Arwadi (died on 21st of February 2010), a ceremony was waiting for them. It was their death ceremony. When you know that your time has come around whether you are prepared for it or not and whether you utter your last goodbyes or not, you are faced with a simple hurdle: no place for resting in peace. The graveyards in Beirut ran out of room for hosting the new dead people. Kamal Harb, the director of the Harb association for burying the dead (for the Shiite sect), says “Beirut’s cemeteries are crowded now; it is difficult to find enough space to bury a new dead”. Antoine Kyrillos from the Administrative and Financial Committee in the Commissions of the Central council of the Maronite Societies echoes the same idea. He says, “The cemeteries are full now in Beirut and although people could bury their family members in the (Roman Catholic and Maronite) cemeteries of Fanar, people still prefer Beirut’s cemeteries because the maintenance is better there.”  Speaking about maintenance of these cemeteries, in November 2009, the public areas of the Ras El-Nabeh cemetery were renovated and planted walks and an adequate lighting were set up.

The director of Bachoura and Ashohada cemeteries (for the Sunni sect) in Beirut, Mostafa Arab, says “the ground is not a renewable resource and we should deal wisely with it” That is why he thinks that burying a family member over another is a solution for this problem. He says, “We must stop the muddled excavation process and start burying family members over one another to save space” This solution offered by Arab has two main problems. First, the time-interval between the deceased body to perish and the time when the newly dead body would be buried cannot be controlled. In other words, the time-interval should be no less than one year so that the old body would decay completely before the newly dead body would be laid upon, but what happens when the time-interval is less than one year? This case happened with Al Bondokgi family. Samar Traboulsi Bekdash tells the story of her husband’s three uncles (Al Bondokgi family) who died the same year. She says that last year the first uncle was buried over his mother in Bachoura cemetery. Within a week, his brother followed, but they couldn’t bury him over the first one because there wasn’t a one year interval between the first and second burial, she explains. “After several wastas (connections), they buried him in Ashohada cemetery and they paid around $3,000 for digging a new tomb.” After 40 days, the third uncle died and he was buried in the recently built cemetery in Horog. Sometimes they don’t have a choice but to bury the family members over one another even if the body of the one who died before wasn’t fully decayed. Bilal Naccash, the son of Adnan Naccash, followed the steps of his father even in death. After about 8 months, Bilal died in March 2009, and although the time-interval between the father’s death and the son’s was less than a year, they buried him over his father. One of Bial’s friends, Mustafa Shawwa, who attended the burial scene, saw Adnan’s body still without full decay, but the family had no choice but to bury Bilal over his father since the price of digging up a new tomb was high. The second problem regarding burying a family member over another is that the managing office of the cemetery needs the consent of each adult in family X, if the dead person was not of that nuclear family, to agree on burying him in family X’s tomb and this where the conflict lies. Afif Ghalayini’s burial wasn’t that easy. His step mother’s tomb was available, but the family didn’t accept Ghalayini’s burial there. After Ahmad Ghalayini’s, Afif’s son, visits to the family begging them to bury his father there because of no other choice at that time, the family was convinced. “It is humiliation”, says Ghalayini explaining his frustration of the crowdedness of the cemeteries back then.  Farah Hasna tells the story of her grandmother Rafeeka Zahra who was buried over her sister Suaad after the consent of Suaad’s children on the condition that after her burial there, Suaad’s family will regain the ‘ownership’ of the tomb and her children would be buried there in the future. (Did we reach a stage where people confiscate tombs? maybe) Mostafa Arab points out that the burial crisis is more of crisis in families’ kinships. He provides an example to explain what he means,” A woman was so frustrated that her daughter was going to be buried over her mother because she had a tense relationship with her mother that she said ‘I wish I threw my daughter in garbage rather than burying her over my mother’ ”

Kamal Harb says that there isn’t a solution for this crisis. He alleges that those whom their hometowns are in the rural part of Lebanon have the chance to bury their dead there as “the towns have wider space areas for burial and the prices of tombs are lower than in Beirut.”  When trying to conduct an interview with the director of Rawdat Ashahidayn cemetery to ask him more about this crisis and whether there are any solutions to this problem, he refused because he claimed that that cemetery” is a security point”.

“Starting from the year 2000, we tried to implement a new policy concerning the burial issue”, says Arab. He explains that they halted the selling process of tombs and they started forcing people to bury their family members over one another. He says, “We first ask the family members if they have available tombs of relatives and here we are sure that they have, but people tend in many cases to deny this since they usually have problems with their relatives and they don’t want to be ‘in debt to’ the other family” If they denied the fact that they have available tombs and insisted on excavating a new tomb, ” we start raising up the prices and we usually advise them if they weren’t able to pay that much to go and bury their dead in Horog  that costs 500,000 L.L only.” One should note here that Awkaf is responsible for the newly established Horog graveyard whereas the Makassed Philanthropic Islamic Association is responsible for the Bachoura and Ashohada cemeteries. Arab also claims that 40% of burials held in Ashohada and Bachoura are for free funded by charity projects. He explains, “Some families out of social pretenses like to make the death ceremony an unforgettable one so they don’t mind paying more for extra services that actually goes for the free burials.” Mazen Mahmasani, the responsible for the official papers and transactions for dead, says that such cases of free burials do not exist. “What they mean by free burial is that one has to pay 750,000 L.L to one million L.L; they tell the family members that this amount is paid as expenses for the workers there.” Arab, refuting Mahmasani’s explanations of the supposedly free burial cases, says that these people, who benefit from this service, if asked, won’t declare that they buried their family members for free. Kyrillos states that in Ras El-Nabeh cemetery one could bury for free if the family can’t afford the expenses. He adds, “There are only ten vaults left in Ras El- Nabeh cemetery for free burial.”  

The Business of Death

They stand soulless and speechless; not only the dead, but also their family members because of the grief they are going to bear as they lose their beloved ones and because of the high prices of tombs.

Arab says that when he will resign, he is going to write a book that constitutes of his diaries in the cemetery and the weird stories he heard there. A person who owns five buildings in Hamra, as Arab claims, brought a testimonial that proves he is poor (Shahadit Fokr Hal), for the sake of burying his mother for free. Another thing he points out from his daily observations is that people tend to make money out of burials. He says, “One time, a guy who just walked out of my office after we finished the official procedures for burials, I heard him talking on the phone and telling his brother that it cost him $2,000 for his father’s burial whereas it didn’t cost him $500.” Arab adds that the man could regain the money he paid from the governmental employee’s cooperation and the only explanation for this is treachery.

After the war, some of the Bachoura’s tombs were damaged completely and since there were no written records of the names of the dead, the tombs were resold again but for “$5,000 per a tomb”, as Mazen Mahmasani puts it. Mahmasani criticizes this ‘unethical act’, as he names it, and says that the cemetery’s directory office should have kept track of the names of the dead or at least tried to do something about it instead of using this opportunity to “make some business.” Today, Arab says, everything is archived and no one can rob a tomb.

 Although the burial prices are lower in Horog, Mahmsani says that Dar Al Fatwa forces the family to pay an extra $500 for the tomb stone while as Mahmasani points out “It doesn’t cost more than $100.”  

Squeezing the Dead in Palestinian Refugee Camps

They weren’t supposed to be homeless during their final stay on Earth.13 Palestinian martyrs, who were part of “Arradwan” exchange of martyrs mission that was held on 16th of July 2008, were literally buried on the sidewalk facing Ashohada cemetery. Arab claims that this happened with coordination and prior- planning with the municipality of Beirut. He adds that the municipality expanded later on Ashohada graveyard and the sidewalk, where the martyrs were buried, became part of it.

 Although the cemeteries in the Palestinian refugee camps are crowded, Palestinians have the chance to bury their dead in Lebanese cemeteries outside their camps. Jamal Najami of both Palestinian parents says that when they wanted to bury her father five years ago, Ashohada cemetery charged them $7,000 for a new tomb. They couldn’t afford that so her cousin offered her the tomb of her father and the father was buried over his brother. Solved. This March, Najami’s mother died, but they couldn’t bury her over her husband because the tomb is for her cousin’s family. With the newly built cemetery in Horog, Najami’s family was able to bury the mother there by paying $500 only. Still the cemeteries of Ain Al Helwe, Shatila , and Burj Al Barajne camps are choking with their dead.

Will the solution be cremation? The entire process of cremation, whether or not it includes a service or just the incineration of the corpse, is far cheaper than burial, even though a coffin is used. The ashes of the buried person can be kept at home in a an urn, thus offering the family the opportunity to remember the loved-one on a daily basis, but religiously it is illegal and some people might not like it because simply they don’t like seeing their loved ones being burned.

Death is inevitable and one should be prepared for it whether spiritually (for believers) or even financially. Some may go further by reserving their own tombs, but now “the act of reserving a tomb is banned”, as Arab points out.    

Aayan’s coffin sprinkled with holy water before it was removed from the house is now ready for burial. Al Arwadi’s body washed and wrapped in sheets of white cloth (kafan) and transported to the site of the funeral prayers (salat-l-janazah) is also now ready for burial, but what is not ready is the tomb.

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