ABU DHABI // An Emirati woman looks around for her daughter’s grave at the Baniyas cemetery.
“I’m sure she’s around here somewhere. Her grave is the third one in the last row from the left,” the 46-year-old S S says. “I memorised it, but coming from the other direction. If my son was here, he would know.”
Her daughter’s grave is among hundreds of unmarked plots in that section of the cemetery..
“I’ve marked it with a blue ribbon. Without that ribbon I’d never find her,” she says.
Adjacent to her daughter’s grave are neat rows with plastic headstones guaranteed to last for years. They are marked with letters and numbers, a system that was instituted in 2008, eight years after the death of her daughter.
“Previously you could be buried anywhere. Now there are designated areas for burial and every grave has a serial number that is tied to a geographic information system (GIS) and satellite,” says Khalifa Al Romaithy, manager of public health at Abu Dhabi Municipality.
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Each number is registered with the municipality and the exact location of a grave and the decedent is available in minutes.
If SS had not taken the initiative to mark her daughter’s grave and visit frequently, it would have been lost among the thousands of others. Even those marked with stone have been destroyed by weather.
There are 16 cemeteries in the emirate, but only three – Baniyas, Samha and Al Bateen – are active. Most of the others have been closed for years and nobody visits. Only the cemetery in Mahawi remains open to visitors.
“The Baniyas cemetery is the largest and has the capacity to hold more than 60,000 bodies in addition to the bodies currently buried within,” Mr Al Romaithy says.
The cemetery is divided in two, Muslim and non-Muslim. Each section is further broken down by area to make it easier for loved ones to visit.
Visitors can give the caretaker a serial number, which they received at the time of a family member’s death, and they will be taken to the proper grave.
“The areas are divided according to type of death. Still births are buried in a specific area and there is a designated area for body remains,” section head of cemetery services
Unlike in the past, family members can no longer be buried side by side.
“You cannot choose where to be buried or ask to be buried next to your relative. This is a door that will never be shut if opened,” he says. “It will mean that all our efforts to organise graves sites will go wasted. Burials are done in chronological order. Every grave has a serial number that is pegged with the body and tied to an electronic cemetery management program.”
The system was introduced to put some order to a previously haphazard system of burial, which led to the “lack of speific details” on many bodies.
The municipality, which is responsible for the upkeep and regulation of the cemeteries, hopes families will come forward to give them information.
“There are bodies that were buried many years ago of which we have little information on.”
Cemeteries are open to UAE Nationals and expatriates, and burial services are free.
“There is no concern in the future of overcrowding,” Mr Al Romaithy says. “The land is available for all and there is no hint of ever introducing fines. Anyone who wants to be buried in the UAE is welcome whatever nationality and religion.”
In recent years, an increasing number of expatriates have been buried in Abu Dhabi.
“This gives us an immense sense of pride. It means that they are pleased with our services and that is our goal.”