Footprints: the final abode

Published July 4, 2017
SHEHR-I-KHAMOSHAN is billed as a graveyard where every service associated with burial would be just a phone call away.—Photo by writer
SHEHR-I-KHAMOSHAN is billed as a graveyard where every service associated with burial would be just a phone call away.—Photo by writer

LAHORE: When Lahore was being adorned with underpasses and flyovers left, right and centre, who would have thought the infrastructure-obsessed chief minister of Punjab would, one day, give a go-ahead to the establishment of a contemporary graveyard where every service associated with burial would be just a phone call away.

Spread over almost 90 kanals in Mouza Rakh, Cheddu Khana parallel to Ferozepur Road, Shehr-i-Khamoshan is the brainchild of Salman Sufi, director general of the Chief Minister’s Strategic Reforms Unit.

From identifying a suitable spot for a grave, to arranging an ambulance, bathing the body, and post-burial services (or lack thereof), it has become a need to have someone take over all these tasks from the grieving family. That’s where Sufi’s idea of Shehr-i-Khamoshan comes into play.

“We have always looked at graveyards as forsaken places. Any development project, whether metro bus and train or a bridge, will go down one day, but not a graveyard. So I thought, why not provide all burial facilities at one spot? While designing, I thought of four major issues: place for burial, transport, ghusl (bath) and guidance through the process...if you’re abroad and need a body preserved, where does one place the body?” Sufi explains when asked what prompted him to come up with the unique concept.

Inaugurated earlier this month with a dua and visit by the chief minister, the façade of Shehr-i-Khamoshan gives the impression of a mansion: metal gates opening up to neatly constructed simple grey structures on both sides and a massive ground ahead. The high boundary wall is protected with barbed wire and around 22 CCTV cameras are installed throughout the premises to keep away encroachers and addicts, though there are certain administrative mechanisms in place to keep such unwanted visitors at bay.

The white-tiled structures include staff quarters, washrooms, an ablution area, open and arched funeral prayer section, janazgah — a building housing three bathing rooms, two for men and one for women — a mortuary that can accommodate 30 bodies at a time, and administration offices.

The lush green ground is big enough for around 9,000 graves, and is divided into blocks with each assigned an alphabet to mark and spot a grave; there are walkways and benches and a golf cart to transport elderly visitors.

The graves will be dug by excavators and built uniformly: flat, even, same-sized with a considerable distance between each — around a foot — and the same design of tombstone will have to be followed. Sufi says no one will be allowed to construct anything on a grave above ground level or put up flags or buntings. There are two small shops outside selling flowers and other essentials.

But if there are traditional graveyards around, why establish such an elaborate space instead of improving and managing what is already out there?

“When you’re doing something different, you have to start afresh. It is easy for society to accept something new, but not to change something that exists,” Sufi responds. For him, it is an effort to avoid digging graves on top of each other as the years go by. He adds: “I wanted to throw an idea that traditional graveyards are breeding grounds for illegal activities... I wanted to assure people that...nothing is going to happen to [their loved one’s] grave and it will be well taken care of.”

Shehr-i-Khamoshan is managed by the Shehr-i-Khamoshan Authority, of which Sufi is the acting director general. On the other hand, traditional graveyards are run by local governments. “Local governments are run by bureaucrats who are not technical people. This is a specialised job. The authority will take care of the graveyard, as well as hiring staff. Local governments can send us requests to build such graveyards for them in any locality and we won’t take over their functioning, but they will have to follow our SOPs regarding design of graves.”

While the prototype project caters to Muslims, regardless of social standing or the area they live in, the aim is to facilitate all faith groups. The construction of four similar graveyards will begin soon for Christians and Ahmadis as well as crematoriums for Hindus and Sikhs, land for which has been identified across Lahore, Sufi claims.

Availing the services at Shehr-i-Khamoshan does not entail a lot of cost and, in some cases, nothing at all. For those who can afford it, the minimum charges are Rs10,000 — including space, ambulance and burial. Anything paid over the amount, Sufi says, would be utilised to manage the graveyard. But those who can’t afford it won’t be charged a penny.

The authority has identified 20 spots across Punjab to replicate the model in other districts. The construction of Shehr-i-Khamoshan graveyards is under way in Sargodha, Multan and Faisalabad and should be functional by the end of this year.

“The chief minister has allocated us Rs1 billion in this budget. I think it is as important as Rescue-1122 and will provide much-needed services no one ever thought of. In the coming months, we hope to present this model to other provinces and urge political parties to replicate it in the provinces they govern.”

Published in Dawn, July 4th, 2017

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