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Grave concerns

June 05, 2016


Buried in controversy

Government-run graveyards are poorly run and mismanaged; it’s time the government looked to community-run graveyards and other radical solutions

by Mehreen Naveed Chawla

When souls depart from this world, it is commonly said, ‘rest in peace’. However, a visit to a few graveyards in Karachi would alarm any onlooker gazing at their potential final resting place. Here, ‘rest in peace’ is a phrase better left unsaid.

According to investigations conducted by Dawn there have been approximately 1.3 million deaths in Karachi since 1998 but the number of burial plots available are almost half of that figure, which clearly means that many graves are being reused.

Iqbal Pervez, the Karachi Municipal Corporation (KMC) graveyard additional director, points out that there are around 218 graveyards in Karachi. Each graveyard has, on an average, between 2,500-3,000 graves, which results in a maximum number of 654,000 spots in total for burial. This means that for a city of an estimated 20 million, burial spots fall far short of those needed.

Karachi faces a severe shortage of burial space, existing graveyards are poorly maintained and the cost of funerals has become very high

“There is literally no space available,” Pervez says bitterly. “We’re surrounded by a plethora of problems, and the government isn’t making anything easier either.”

Gora Qabaristan, Karachi’s oldest graveyard, is quiet under the blistering heat, its marble tombstones patiently tolerating the sun’s powerful rays. It is noticed that some graves lie on a higher plain than others. “That’s the VIP area,” says KMC graveyard deputy director, Sarwar Alam. “When it rains, the graveyard floods with water. They’ve built a small number of graves on a higher area, where they lie out of the water’s reach. Obviously, they charge accordingly, for the VIP area and the rest.” After a brief pause, he adds, “It’s ironic, isn’t it? To be unequal even in death.”

Various graveyards in Karachi have been declared closed by the government. Yet their space continues to be utilised; all one has to do is pay the right price (see The business of burials). One example of this is the P.E.C.H.S graveyard situated on Tariq Road. One of the oldest graveyards in the city, funeral processions continue to be seen there, regardless of it being declared closed years ago. Gora Qabaristan is yet another example. “Over 300,000 bodies are registered [as] buried there,” points out Alam. “However, there is space for only 3,000 graves. Judging by the statistics, at least 10 bodies lie buried within one grave!”

Another graveyard that has officially been declared closed is Mewa Shah. Amjad Khan, a local resident, states, “My youngest sister passed away when she was two years old, and we buried her there. I remember the grave was quite small. We visited the graveyard after a couple of months and, to my shock, her grave had disappeared. Instead, there were larger graves clumped together where hers had been.” His head bowed, he adds, “No one knows how it happened, and we still haven’t been able to find answers.”

At the Qayyumabad graveyard, the shortage of space is quite noticeable. Graves lie outside, among rocks and garbage; the white tombstones obscured by the noxious waste. Younus Jan, a grave waterer at the Qayyumabad, laments the consequences: “The abadi here is 400,000 people, yet the graveyards within areas B and D yield only 3,520 graves in total. Now you tell me, where will we find space to bury more?”

Taimoor Azam, a visitor in area B at the Qayyumabad graveyard, alludes, “When my brother was buried here five years ago, there was ample space and no garbage. Now, I am shocked to see the wasteland this graveyard has turned into.” With such conditions at hand, the only short-term solution lies in the erection of graves among the garbage outside, the only desperate panacea they can think of.

Pervez and Alam ascertain that little to no effort has been made to rectify this issue. “Most graveyards are between 60 to 100 years old,” Alam alludes. “When towns are planned, space is allocated for housing, schools, even parks; but no space is given towards constructing graveyards.”

Pervez adds, “You see, KDA has planned many developments, but no graveyards at all in the past 50 years. Neither has Bahria, although it has recently planned the construction of 5,000 to 10,000 houses. Gadap town reserved 100 acres for graveyards; Bin Qasim reserved 30 acres; Deh Mondiari at Kemari town put aside 50, [but] no progress has been made as yet.”

It is known that the heatwave which struck Karachi in 2015 led to 965 bodies that needed to be buried but there was no space available to do so. Nor is there adequate space available in the city’s mortuaries. While non-profits, such as Edhi and Chippa have the most capacity (200 and 150 respectively), public and private hospitals have very little space ranging from a capacity of 40 at Abbasi Shaheed Hospital and 10 each at Civil Hospital and Aga Khan University Hospital. This, experts point out, is simply a disaster in the making.

Arif Hasan, a well-known Karachi-based urban planner and architect, draws attention to the need for land to be immediately set aside for graveyards. “Given the demographics of growth [natural and migration-related], we require approximately 300,000 new graves per year. This translates to around 375 acres per year,” he says. “If this shortage of space continues, it’s better to change our religion and cremate our remains,” Hasan adds sarcastically.

While the lack of space results in issues including rising costs of burial plots (see The business of burials) and mismanagement, the shortage of graveyards cannot be overlooked or ignored. The Sindh Local Government Act (2013) states in article 50 (i) (burial and cremation places, etc), that “A corporal, municipal committee or town committee may, and if so required by Government, shall provide suitable places for the burial and burning of the dead, and shall take necessary measures for the proper maintenance and administration of such burial and cremation places, etc”.

As yet, the only committee attempting to monitor the administration of graveyards is KMC, and that, too, has its problems. Iqbal confirms they have access to 45pc of territories within Karachi. “Out of the 218 graveyards within Karachi, only 48 are regularly registered with us. From the remaining, some are under the control of the army and navy, and most are run by their respective surrounding communities.”

In addition, an officer in the KMC tells Dawn, on the condition of anonymity, that no allocations have been marked in the local government’s budget for maintenance and oversight for many years. It is clear that there is no official check-and-balance system, and most graveyard administrators have no overhead body to answer to.

The result: differing policies and prices — the prices vary not only by graveyard and the burial service but can also vary within a graveyard (see The business of burials). Furth­ermore, while non-profit funeral service providers such as Al-Khidmat Foundation and Al-Mustafa are registered, their charges are not uniform (see tables on facing page). It is clear that standardised charges need to be established by the government and it also needs to ensure that these policies are followed by everyone.

Community-run graveyards also don’t answer to a central authority: “Some communities don’t allow us to inspect their graveyards,” Pervez adds. “It is clear that the Pakhtun community, the Aga Khanis, Memons, etc, believe in managing their own graveyards, and [do] not support outside interference.”

Interestingly the graveyards that are run without government oversight and managed by communities are known to be not only better managed than government-run ones but also charge far more reasonable burial rates. The community-run graveyards also offer subsidised rates for community members depending on their needs (see Table 1 on facing page).

Most community-run graveyards, such as the one on Tariq road, and another one on Dalmia, are administered smoothly, and have access to water and electricity. Hassan comments on the sense of ownership within these areas: “They want to take proper care of their dead; hence, they make an effort to ascertain the best conditions possible.”

Tasneem A. Siddiqui, founder of Saiban — Action Research for Shelter, a non-profit that provides housing for low-income populations in Pakistan’s urban centres, states, “these communities have their own sense of culture and requirements. Their members are well-connected, and they regularly visit and care for their graves. I feel their graveyards are therefore, very well managed.”

The condition of government-run graveyards, however, provides a drastic change to the clean and organised community-run ones. Most of these graveyards have broken boundary walls; others have none at all. “Gorkans [grave diggers] complain about dogs entering the graveyards at night,” says Alam.

Jan complains of petty crimes and ‘black magic’ taking place at the Qayyumabad graveyard. “They come with their pots and dolls,” he whispers. “Someone came to pay their respects to their loved one, and got his phone stolen. By the time we found out, it was too late.” Jan, as well as Yasin, a waterer at Dalmia’s graveyard, bewail the lack of electricity and water. “The government does nothing, I have to arrange for my own tankers,” says Jan. “We try to make do with what we have, and get by each day.”

With all these issues on the table, it is imperative to understand that efforts to resolve them need to be made immediately. “At least one graveyard needs to be constructed within each district in Karachi,” says Pervez. “If we allocate 200 acres in total towards graveyards, we will have 440,000 graves available: 2,200 graves on average per acre. It is safe to say we should be [fine] for the next 20 years.” Hassan adds: “A couple of new graveyards have opened up on the outskirts of Karachi. They could very well be utilised in the short run.”

Siddiqui further ascertains that more graveyards should be built within the city on an urgent basis and that the system of ‘booking’ graves needs to be changed. “People should also stop buying graves beforehand,” he says. “They buy 10 graves at a time for the future, and this causes problems for other families. Stop the reservation system.”

The KMC graveyard directors emphasise the need for a well-managed system. “We need administrators in the future — 200 of them. They must be posted at various graveyards, and accounted for. This way the charges will be monitored. We need to construct boundary walls too. Rs30 million will be needed for repairing broken walls throughout the various graveyards within Karachi,” Alam ascertains.

Current graveyards within Karachi can be used as positive examples to set the benchmark. Wadi-i-Hussain, located on the Karachi-Hyderabad motorway, is remarkably clean and organised. It is also the first online graveyard in Karachi. Community-run graveyards and the ones in DHA Phase VI and VII are also well-run examples, which can be used as a template for future graveyards constructed by the government.

The government can also look to what is being done internationally for possible solutions. The shortage of graveyards is not a unique phenomenon applicable to Karachi, other major cities and metropolitans face the same problem. And some have come up with radical solutions — from the high tech to a twist on the conventional (see Deconstructing the traditional).

Jan, during his tour of the graveyards, mutters bitterly, “Aap khud dekhein. With conditions like these, who would want to rest here for eternity, [and make this] their final abode?” Staring at the garbage, the broken walls, the broken tombstones, his words reverberate over and over, until they finally vanish into the blistering heat around us.

The business of burials

Due to the gorkan mafia and high demand, low supply funeral expenses have risen over the years

by Maliha Naz Rana

Amir Shabbir is a common Karachite in his early 40s who lives paycheck to paycheck on a monthly income of Rs30,000. He resides with a family of five in a rented house in Essa Nagri and while it has been difficult to make ends meet, the one thing he didn’t expect to sink him into debt were funeral costs.

“I never felt as helplessly poor and humiliated as I did [when I had] to arrange money for the … burial of my mother last year,” he says. “During this painful moment, few relatively well-to-do relatives and friends were kind [enough] to help me borrow money from them. But later, while arranging to pay back this money, we went through extreme financial constraints for almost six months,” he adds with tear in his eyes.

As with everything else for those on the margins, dying has increasingly become an outrageously expensive affair; almost every low-income to middle-class family has to struggle with the financial burden of funeral and burial expenses for their loved ones.

According to Dawn’s estimates (see tables below), the average cost of a typical funeral, including the bathing and enshrouding of the deceased, mortuary charges, coffin-carrier service charges and the burial plot fee hovers between a very wide range of Rs20,000 to Rs150,000. Once you include the average amount spent on extra arrangements, such as catering, the cost of a funeral can go up to Rs25,000 to Rs175,000. These are amounts that are not economically feasible for the common person to bear.

Gora Qabaristan in Karachi — Photo by Tahir Jamal/White Star
Gora Qabaristan in Karachi — Photo by Tahir Jamal/White Star

For instance, the bathing and enshrouding of the body, a mandatory practice in all religions, can be done free of cost or can cost upwards of thousands of rupees (see Table 2 for more details). The aggrieved family can either seek these services from a welfare organisation such as Edhi Foundation or Chippa or hire a professional easily available in every locality for Rs10, 000. Mostly in urban areas, families prefer to take the dead body to NGOs for this purpose due to the small living spaces in their homes.

In addition, the cost of a shroud (kafan) varies between Rs700 to Rs1,450 and is easily available at almost

every graveyard and at all welfare organisations that provide ghusul and kafan service. The only silver lining in this case is that those from a low-income background can qualify for subsidies: according to the representatives of these welfare organisations, they provide bathing and shrouding service free of cost to poor or heirless people.

If there is a delay in the burial for some reason and family members have to keep the body in the mortuary before the burial, the charges can run from Rs1,000 to almost Rs4, 000 for three days.

Another unforeseen cost is transportation — this becomes all the more relevant considering newly-developed graveyards are situated on the outskirts of Karachi. Some social welfare organisations including Al-Khidmat Foundation, Khidmat-i-Khalq Foundation (KKF), Al-Mustafa Trust and Alamgir Welfare Trust provide coffin-carrier bus services in Karachi. However, there is not a single hearse run by the provincial or local governments. The fare of a coffin carrier bus is between Rs1,700 to Rs8,000 — barely affordable for a poor to middle-class bereaved family.

The single biggest funeral expense, however, is that of the burial plot. The reason for the high prices can be explained with the basic law of economics: low supply and high demand. Since the city’s graveyards are running out of space to house its dead (see Buried in controversy), finding an empty grave plot has now become a Herculean task and the cost of burial, including digging, cementing and closing the grave can range between Rs800 to Rs100, 000.

The rates for burial plots significantly varies depending on the location of the graveyard in the city, with burial plots in Ghazi Brohi graveyard costing Rs5,000 to Rs7,000 and those in Qayyumabad Qabaristan or P.E.C.H.S graveyard near Tariq Road priced from to Rs45,000 to Rs100,000. An additional Rs10,000 to Rs40,000 is charged if the burial plot is close to the entrance of the graveyard.

The Karachi Municipal Corporation (KMC), the legal custodian for the maintenance and administration of burial places, has fixed the same rates for burial plots in any KMC-administered graveyard anywhere in Karachi.

“According to the 2001 by-laws the official charges for a non-cemented grave of size 6x2.75x3 feet are merely Rs3,500,” say Iqbal Pervez, the KMC additional director for graveyards. “But no gravedigger is ready to work for this meager amount and therefore we have increased the rate up to Rs5,850. Only this amount per grave goes to the KMC exchequer,” he adds.

Furthermore, the charges for the cementing of the grave, usually done by the gorkans (gravediggers), should cost around Rs3,000. But the gorkans sell graves at the rates of their own choice, as if the graveyards are privately-owned property, and overcharge for a burial plot many times more than the official rates fixed by the KMC.

According to Dawn’s investigations, if a client agrees to pay the hefty demand gravediggers make, it is possible to accommodate the dead in any graveyard of choice — even if it has already been declared filled to capacity and officially banned for further burials. The gorkans simply build new graves over the old ones which have not been visited for some time. Sometimes, these gravediggers also build fake graves to make it seem as if the graveyards have been filled and use them to monopolise the bereaved people later.

“Shab-i-Barat night, when almost everyone comes to visit the graves of their loved ones, is the best time for us to identify the abandoned graves,” says a gravedigger on condition of anonymity. He has been appointed on a daily wage of Rs600 by an actual gorkan-turned-contractor at Khamosh Colony graveyard.

Sources also point out the presence of the gorkan mafia and political influence in these graveyards, and accuse KMC officials of seeking their due share on every burial plot sold by the gravediggers. “Nobody will allow the gorkans to work in this graveyard unless he pays them their share,” the gravedigger said, adding, “After selling a burial plot; he has to pay money to the thana (police station), the influential political party office in the area, and officials of the civic agency.”

This accusation seems to have some weight, because, otherwise it is hard to figure out how gravediggers around the metropolis can flaunt their rates without being held accountable and why these common practices still remain unnoticed officially by authorities.

According to The Sindh Local Government Act (2013) a corporation, municipal or town committee is responsible for providing, maintaining and administering the places for the burial and burning of the dead. However, based on interviews as well as visits and observations made by Dawn, almost all of the graveyards that come under the jurisdiction of the local government seem to be run by the gorkan mafia.

For those on the margins and who don’t belong to communities that provide a social net, there are very few options outside of borrowing money from relatives or turning to privately social welfare organisations. A few local NGOs, such as Al Khidmat and Edhi, provide funeral and burial-related services in Karachi on humanitarian basis at the lowest possible rates using zakat and other charity money donated by citizens.

However, the government, which should be responsible for providing these services, and is the main collector of all the zakat and usher money, spends almost nothing on these matters.

While government authorities continue to struggle to provide adequate graveyard space for Karachi’s growing population, the funeral business has become a booming one. From the burial plot to the bathing and enshrouding of the body to travel costs, every step of the funeral adds to the total cost borne by the average citizen.

*All data provided by Dawn GIS

Deconstructing the traditional

Cities around the world face a graveyard shortage and have come up with radical solutions to deal with it

With accelerated urban growth, almost all densely-populated cities around the world are facing acute shortage of burial spaces for the dead. To address this problem many cramped cities including London, Sydney and Mumbai are now extensively considering the recycling of graves by amending centuries-old religious and cultural traditions. They remove remains from older graves and bury them deeper in the same grave or place them in an ossuary and then reuse the space on top for a new body.

Grave reuse is increasingly becoming a norm especial among religions that forbid or discourage cremation. For instance, in Mumbai and Delhi, where no permanent burial space is available, the reuse of graves has become an established practice among Muslims and Christians. Almost all the cemeteries run by these communities reuse graves with an intervening period of one to two years.

Some countries like Germany and Singapore provide free public graves for a period of two decades: after that the family can either pay to keep it or the grave is recycled.

Though the reuse of burial space is a sensitive issue everywhere, and has been resisted and accused of violating religious and cultural norms, it has become a widely used method and is employed across faiths — it has proved to be an efficient and sustainable solution for cities all over the world.

In addition to traditional burials, 75pc of people in the UK and US, and around 55pc in Australia, are opting for cremation — despite the church’s strong animosity to the idea. Although a cheaper alternative and a solution to limited burial spaces, it has proved hazardous to the environment as the process releases pollutants such as mercury and carbon dioxide into the atmosphere, in addition to consuming significant amounts of energy.

To deal with this issue, Minnesota, in the US, became the first state to legalise resomation or flameless bio-cremation, the alkaline hydrolysis of the dead body, as an environmentally-friendly alternative to cremation.

Countries around the world are also opting to create more space by building multi-storied skyscraper graveyards; a creative, high-tech and affordable solution. Brazil’s 32-storied Memorial Necrópole Ecumênica is the tallest high-rise cemetery in the world so far.

Two other notable projects are Moksha Tower in Mumbai and Yarkon Cemetery in Petah Tikva, Israel. The interesting fact about Moksha Tower, the future’s tallest cemetery, is that it will cater to the burial needs of all four major religions in Mumbai. This tower will provide spaces for funerals and burial gardens for Muslims and Christians; cremation and river burial facilities for Hindus; and a tower of silence for Zoroastrian burial rites of Paris.

In Israel, after facing strong opposition from Orthodox Jews, the construction of underground, multi-story cave-like tunnels at Yarkon Cemetery has not ultimately gained rabbinical approval as the most effective Jewish practice in the era of land shortage to bury the dead, but it has became part of a government-backed master plan.

Other cemetery trends include the use of geospatial technology, virtual graveyards, interactive digital headstones, vidstones with solar-powered video screens and social-networking memorials. The new ‘green cemeteries’ in Calgary, Canada, and Arlington National Cemetery in the US, are currently the most high-tech cemeteries in the world.

These cemeteries don’t lay any headstones and the visitors use handheld GPS units and GPS locations to find graves. Pakistan’s graveyards are also becoming high tech: the country’s first online cemetery, Wadi-i-Hussain, is located in Karachi. The organisers of this graveyard maintain a website to provide family members with a virtual visit of the grave; a blessing for those who cannot travel the long distance to visit the graves of their loved ones.

— Maliha Naz Rana

Published in Dawn, Sunday Magazine, June 5th, 2016