How trading in burial plots became a lucrative business in Middle East

Shortage of space in cemeteries has sparked a surge in dealing as death rates rise in war-torn countries

People visit the "Valley of Peace" cemetery during Eid al-Fitr as they mark the end of the fasting month of Ramadan, in Najaf, Iraq June 16, 2018. REUTERS/Alaa Al-Marjani
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In war-torn nations of the Middle East, there is no RIP even in death.

An acute shortage of plots over the past two decades has led to surging prices in cemeteries. The coronavirus pandemic has compounded the crisis.

About a million people have been killed in Iraq, Syria, Yemen, Pakistan and Afghanistan and other post-9/11 war zones, the Costs of War Project at Brown University estimated this year. US air strikes alone have killed more than 22,000 civilians across the Middle East and Africa since the attacks, UK watchdog Airwars said in its latest report.

No surprise then that from Syria to Yemen and Iraq, demand for graves has pushed prices up as much as a thousand-fold. Such is the trading frenzy that authorities have permitted caskets to be buried on top of each other as private cemeteries have run out of space in the Syrian capital of Damascus.

Islam, the dominant religion of the region, stipulates the dead should be laid to rest in individual plots. With the affluent preferring a place for the departed within the cities, rather than at public graveyards on the outskirts, investing in cemeteries has become a lucrative business.

“The market right now is in favour of sellers like me,” Khaled, who has space to offer in the much sought-after Sheikh Raslan cemetery in old Damascus, told The National.

The 52-year-old teacher, who preferred not to disclose his real name, bought space for a family graveyard in 1982 while rates were only 20 Syrian pounds for a plot of one square metre. His three daughters moved to North America before the outbreak of the civil war in 2011 and his wife died five years ago.

After leaving room for himself by her side, he has about three square metres to sell.

It is illegal to sell such plots. Although the law states that only relatives can share burial grounds, bribes are usually paid to officials to tweak the letter of law.

The buyer and seller sign a preliminary contract of cession and a consent paper through a lawyer. These agreements then have to be registered, which can take up to 18 months.

In Damascus, a square metre of land starts today at 4 million Syrian pounds ($1,700) in cemeteries such as Al Mazah and Adhdah, increasing to 35 million Syrian pounds ($10,000) in the popular Sheikh Raslan.

It is here that Khaled has a plot with a depth of more than two metres, one that can fit a second casket on top of his.

“I've got multiple offers through a broker," said Khaled. "I will go with a family willing to pay cash, not in instalments.”

An agent, who is in league with an official at the Burial Register Office, said signing such a contract would cost 4 million Syrian pounds, of which the lawyer would take anything between 1 million and 3 million pounds.

Buying such plots is a luxury that few can afford in Syria.

“I want to be buried close to my family home in old Damascus," said a woman in her 40s, who preferred anonymity. "These cemeteries contain the remains of famous people who are descendants of our Prophet Mohammed and his companions. I feel good to think about it."

Location, location, location

It is a similar story in Iraq, where prices in the cemetery in the holy Shiite city of Najaf are on the rise.

The centuries-old burial ground is home to millions of graves of Shiites from Iraq and beyond, preferred due to its proximity to the shrine of Imam Ali, a cousin of Prophet Mohammed and his son-in-law.

The government took control of the burials in Wadi Al Salam, or the Valley of Peace, in the late 1980s. Earlier, families were free to choose where they could bury their loved ones.

The former dictator of Iraq, Saddam Hussein, gave away a plot of 1,000 square metres to each gravedigger, who charged only for the burial service. Those who wanted a special plot of 50 square meters could pay the municipality only 100 Iraqi dinars (7 US cents). That later rose to 100,000 dinars.

But soon after the US-led invasion in 2003 that toppled the Saddam regime, chaos engulfed the cemetery as people started grabbing plots illegally to sell them later to the families, gravedigger Fuad Al Amiya Al Kaabi, 25, told The National.

The price then surged to 10 million Iraqi dinars for a 50 square-metre plot.

To meet demand and expand the cemetery, the Najaf administration in recent years started to sell plots to investment companies, which, in turn, sell them to gravediggers and families.

Now, prices range from 2.75 million to 40 million dinars. ($2000-$27,000).

“The location is what determines the price," said Mr Al Kaabi, whose family has been in the burial business for decades. "If it's located on a main road inside the cemetery or near the gates that will push its price.”

The cemetery expanded significantly in the 1980s during the Iraq-Iran war, followed by the 1991 Gulf War. The sectarian warfare of 2003, the 2014 war against ISIS and the pandemic also contributed to its spread.

“Demand for plots is still on the rise so are the prices," Mr Al Kaabi said. "We are still burying an average of 200 bodies a day, thanks to the coronavirus."

Public cemeteries across the Arab world are not for profit. And establishing a new cemetery within a city isn't an option as there is simply no space.

In the Yemeni city of Aden, all plots belong to the Ministry of Religious Endowments. This means they cannot be sold and are given for free.

But some cemetery guards and undertakers sell plots illegally in deserted graveyards. According to activists, they stack caskets and even remove the remains of the dead, charging anything between 50,000 and 100,000 Yemeni riyals ($200-400) per plot.

"Undertakers control the cemeteries behind the ministry's back," said Khaled Al Kamal, a lawyer in the capital of Sanaa. "They handle the prices for the plots and services as the ground is filled to the brim."

Their success has lured the unemployed to make money out of digging graves in a country where six years of conflict has killed more than 18,000 civilians. The phone numbers of many of them are displayed on the walls of Abu Harba, the biggest cemetery in Aden.

"I have been managing this cemetery for more than 20 years," Yaser Abu Ali, 42, told The National. "I have a team of six. We take shifts."

The business boomed in the last couple of years because of the pandemic and the war, he said.

Updated: November 01, 2021, 12:57 PM