Institute for War and Peace Reporting | Giving Voice, Driving Change

Azerbaijan: The Funeral Business

With cemeteries in the capital Baku officially full, people are being asked to find increasingly large sums to squeeze in deceased relatives.
By Liya Bayramova

An elderly woman, tears running down her cheek, hung her head in shame as she left the Nariman graveyard in Baku - she'd just discovered that she is unable to bury her husband in a dignified manner.

The funeral she would like to have given him would have cost her 300 US dollars - the equivalent of six months salary. "How can one live in a country where even human grief is turned into a profitable business?" said the woman.

Funeral paraphernalia are relatively inexpensive - a coffin, shroud, catafalque and other services can cost just 15 dollars - but, since space is tight in Azeri graveyards, buying a plot costs a fortune.

There are 90 cemeteries around the capital Baku but they are all becoming rapidly congested. Burial here is considered socially prestigious and while many of these graveyards are "officially" full, you can pay hundreds, sometimes thousands of dollars, to get a plot.

Cemetery supervisors make space if there is none to hand and it's not rare for two, three or more people to end up interred together. Those who can't afford the price often buy into grave-share schemes, passing from this life to the next with people they hardly knew or didn't know at all.

According to the law, untended graves can be re-used after 25 year, which leads to all sorts of upset when people try to locate the graves of long deceased relatives. There are tales of folk tracking down family members killed in the Second World War, finding the plot through official records and then discovering someone else's name on the headstone.

While all citizens are entitled to a free burial plot, Tagiev Javanshir, who oversees Baku's municupal cemeteries, says Soviet-style bureaucratic language fails to specify whether that right applies to graveyards.

When asked about the trading of plots for hundreds of dollars with pensioners who earn under 15 dollars a month, Tagiev admitted that some in the burial business were profiting out of people's grief.

Tracking down the graveyard mafia to source is no easy task. These reporters made inquiries about buying a grave for a bogus Muslim relative who had to be buried that day, according to Islamic tradition. The urgency of the funeral clearly hiked up the price. We were shocked to discover that it could cost up to 1000 dollars.

Now, proposals are afoot to open new private graveyards - a prospect which has shocked many already appalled at the "funeral business".

Liya Bayramova and Zaur Mamedov are journalist on the Baku-based Zerkalo newspaper.

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