A few months ago, a friend of mine told me how he had to bribe an official to secure a burial site for a relative. I was so shocked that I began to investigate. As it turned out, such experiences were frequent; many Armenians seem to have gone through the same thing.
Yerevan is running out of burial sites, and the authorities say they lack the money they need to open new cemeteries.
There are 21 cemeteries in the city, 14 of which are already full, with the remaining seven having only limited space which officials say will be used up by 2020 at the latest.
This has led to allegation of corruption, with officials accused of demanding payment for new graves and allowing the owners of family plots to sell off the space at high prices.
I was angered by the cynicism of the officials who allegedly exploited people’s grief and desperation for their own profit, and decided to investigate the issue.
Preparing this article took me two months, since it was hard to find people prepared to go on the record about buying spaces in Yerevan’s cemeteries. But the more I researched the issue, the wider its implications spread.
That is how I found out that many Yerevan families have to find burial plots in villages outside the capital, where the cost is half or even a third of an equivalent plot in the city. Other sources told me that the capital’s largest cemetery, Sovetashen, was at risk of subsidence, and that many people were forced to rebury their loved ones somewhere else.
But the people I spoke to on the corruption issue repeatedly declined to be identified.
“We are scared that we’ll get into trouble,” one family member told me. “There are very high-ranking officials behind all this, since only people with protection from on high can sell plots in the cemeteries.”
Others were delighted to hear about my article, however. Anna Avetyan has been trying for several years to sell the plot where her grandparents are buried, hoping to get 3,000 US dollars for the two plots, and asked me to help her find a buyer.
Later, it turned out that her aunt, who lives in America and had previously encouraged her to sell the plot to raise money, had dramatically changed her mind.
“She rang me and said ‘don’t sell the plot in the cemetery, my mother and father appeared to me in a dream, they were angry with me. I will send you all the money you need,’” said Avetyan, adding that her aunt had yet to send the money.
Officials were happy to talk to me, though they were not very useful. Every state employee told me that the law regulating cemeteries is adequate, but is not enforced. At the end of the process of research, I was left feeling that the government needs to invest serious money into creating new cemeteries, and I hoped my article would help that process.
This hasn’t happened yet, however, and officials are still saying that if the government gives them more money they can do something about the problem. What I can say is that, after the article came out, many people who had suffered at the hands of corrupt cemetery officials rang me to thank me for my concern.
“The problem you have raised is very urgent, and the story covers the topic very well and shows the reality we are living in now,” said one reader who called to thank me for my work.
And that made me feel like my efforts were not in vain.
Galust Nanyan is a freelance journalist in Armenia.