Curbing Armenia's Death Cult

Parliament steps in to stop people taking up more space than they can possibly use after death.

Curbing Armenia's Death Cult

Parliament steps in to stop people taking up more space than they can possibly use after death.

A giant marble statue of a sad-looking man towers above most of the other gravestones in the town cemetery of Echmiadzin. But it is by no means the only one – a bust stands on a three-metre pedestal nearby, for example.

Such showy monuments come in at 60,000 to 80,000 US dollars - a fabulous sum, especially in a country as poor as Armenia. But they are part of a growing phenomenon where people spend more on the dead than on the living.

"Many rich people are competing with each other these days,” monument sculptor Sargis Khojoian told IWPR. “They come right up to you and say, 'We’re prepared to pay an extra 500 dollars just to make the headstone for our deceased higher and more luxurious than the rest’.”

It is partly about competition, but often just social pressure to do the right thing and follow tradition in this ancient Christian society.

One woman who works as an artist recalls how there was no money to pay for her mother’s cancer treatment during her final months. But once she was dead, the family borrowed more than 10,000 dollars for the funeral and gravestone.

"That money could have helped her live longer and suffer less,” said the woman, who asked not to be named. “However, that was not the top priority for my relatives.”

Now the funeral is over with all the proprieties observed, but the family will remain burdened with the debt for years to come.

Parliament has become so concerned at the trend that it passed a new law at the end of February aimed at reducing people’s spending to more moderate dimensions. It is directed not just at the huge monumental sculptures, but also at the use of large expanses of land for one grave.

According to Armenian tradition, the more lavish the funeral ceremony, the larger the grave and the more splendid the headstone, the more the deceased person is perceived to have been respected by relatives.

Vladimir Badalian, the member of parliament who drafted the legislation, wants to put an end to the "frantic aspiration to buy large and splendid graves".

"I have seen a grave that occupies 260 square metres. Is that normal?" he asked.

According to Razmik Harutiunian, an engineer with a funeral company called Ritual Services for Citizens, "The official data show that cemeteries in Yerevan occupy five per cent of the city's territory. However, in reality, the figure is at least twice that.”

Harutiunian predicts that if things continue as they are, the sprawling cemeteries could eventually swallow up half of Yerevan.

That will not happen if Badalian’s law is enforced properly. It stipulates that each person is allowed 2.5 square metres, while a family grave for four cannot exceed 12.2 sq m.

The strictly-limited graves will, however, be allocated free of charge.

Under the old system, buying a grave site is not very expensive, with the official rates set at 12,000 drams or about 26 dollars.

But because previous legislation does not say exactly how big a grave needs to be, there has been considerable scope for informal price setting. A plot measuring five or six square metres in Yerevan capital can range between 1,000 and 6,000 dollars. Location is everything – a space near the entrance to the cemetary is reckoned to be more prestigious.

Outside the main towns, prices are cheaper, with a plot costing 30 to 50 dollars, or nothing at all in remote villages. As a result, some people choose their burial sites according to what they can afford.

Aida Aghasian, a resident of Echmiadzin, recalled how “an acquaintance of mine was asked for such a sum that he went to his [home] village and buried his father in his mother's grave. Many people do that".

Another provision of the law bans the unregulated sale of funeral items. In Nar-Dos, one of Yerevan’s central streets, coffins in all sizes and trimmings are on display in the street. Many people skirt the street if they can possibly avoid it.

"The law forbids selling funeral items all over the place, as it upsets people. Such things should be sold either out of town or in special shops with tinted or curtained windows," said Badalian.

One part of the law that could prove controversial is a requirement to build a crematorium, which goes against Armenian tradition. The government has already earmarked funds for its construction.

The idea is that a crematorium could halt the creeping expansion of cemetaries. "Ten hectares of land and a memorial wall will fully satisfy the demand for several years. We will not need any more territory," said Badalian, who is keen on the scheme.

But the idea that remains should be burned rather than buried has met with some public hostility, especially from the Armenian Apostolic Church.

"The church is against cremation," said Father Hakob Khachtrian, senior priest at the Church of St Sargis. "Our Lord told us, ‘Dust thou art, and unto dust shalt thou return’. When we cremate a dead body, we interfere in our Lord's providence."

Father Hakob believes the way to solve the problem is simply to stop people building oversized monuments and mausoleums.

Badalian thinks people will eventually come round to the idea, for the sake of the living rather than the dead, "The orchards in Yerevan’s Shahumian district were famous for their fruit trees, but they were turned into a cemetery seven or eight years ago. In 100 years time we will have to walk through this cemetery. But what I want is more orchards and recreation areas in my city.”

Marianna Grigorian and Gayane Mkrtchian are reporters for the Armenianow online weekly.

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