Iraqi Cemetery Exorcises Ghosts of War

Hallowed burial ground welcomes downturn in business.

Iraqi Cemetery Exorcises Ghosts of War

Hallowed burial ground welcomes downturn in business.

Wednesday, 7 October, 2009
Calm has returned to the ancient graveyard of Najaf and the men who make a living from the dead can finally breathe easy.

The last six years have been exceptionally busy for the undertakers. Their sprawling, sand-coloured cemetery - believed to be the world’s largest - has expanded steadily to accommodate tens of thousands of victims of the Iraqi conflict. The seemingly endless maze of graves has also been the scene of several battles between Shia militiamen and American troops.

“The refrigerator truck from the health ministry would bring the corpses – sometimes 200 to 250 a day,” said undertaker Haider Jabar Abu Saibeh. “The bodies were identified only by numbers.”

The cemetery at Najaf is thought to be at least 1,300 years old. It measures approximately 12 square kilometres, the rough graves at its edges merging into desert.

Frontiers visible and metaphysical have long overlapped here. Life meets death, city meets wilderness, and the rule of law runs out. For decades, fugitives from justice and from repressive governments have gone to ground in its intricate network of tombs.

The cemetery owes its size to its proximity to the gold-domed shrine of Imam Ali – a companion of the Prophet Mohammed revered by Shia Muslims. His violent death at the hands of political rivals coincided with the emergence of the schism between Sunni and Shia Islam that powered Iraq’s recent sectarian conflict.

Shia Muslims from the world over have been interred in Najaf, as many believe that burial in the same soil as Imam Ali hastens the soul’s entry into heaven.

Najaf’s undertakers regard themselves as the custodians of a coveted profession. Though a recent drop in violence has brought a downturn in the burial business, the undertakers say they are grateful for the respite.

Their work is demanding enough, they insist, with duties that extend to those above the earth as well as below it. “Our success depends on providing excellent services to the relatives of the deceased,” said an undertaker in his forties, Mohammed Khadem Hasnawi.

A former gravedigger who rose through the ranks, Hasnawi cites honesty as an essential professional attribute. “Families from distant parts of Iraq cannot check on graves regularly,” he said. “They have to trust their undertaker to maintain them.”


Undertakers’ jobs at the Najaf cemetery are often passed from fathers to sons. Local clans such as the Abu Saibeh dominate the trade. Najah Abu Saibeh, an undertaker who likes to spice up his Arabic with the occasional English phrase, said the profession was “highly dignified because it honours the dead”.

The work is reasonably well paid, with burials costing between 200,000 and 300,000 Iraqi dinars (180-250 US dollars), a fee that includes the tombstone and the hire of gravediggers.

However, unlike the gravediggers who are hired as casual labourers, the undertakers’ trade favours experience. A good undertaker will often be appointed to look after the dead of an entire clan.

He must cultivate strong social ties with client families in the most far-flung corners of Iraq, if possible visiting them for ceremonies to honour their dead. He must also master the legal and logistical aspects of the funeral – such as arranging food and board for large groups who have travelled a long way to be at their relatives’ graves.

Mohammed Yousif is one of a handful of men who broke into the profession despite having no inherited connections. An Egyptian by origin, he moved to Iraq in the 1980s during the war with Iran.

“I saw the caskets of war dead entering Najaf at that time and realised I could find work in the city cemetery,” he said. As an outsider who started off as a gravedigger, he encountered resistance from the established undertakers when he tried to set himself up in their profession.

He eventually succeeded with the support of a mentor. “Now I have great contacts with people in this community,” he said.


Not everyone regards the cemetery workers as honourable. Some in Najaf view them with disdain, and say they have grown rich through bloodshed and deceit.

“Wars made them wealthy,” said Abu Laith, a taxi driver in his mid-forties. “They live on our sorrow.”

Minhel Abed al-Hussein, a government employee in his late twenties, says the cemetery workers sometimes cheat clients who cannot check on the contents of each coffin, “They may be paid to move a coffin from one grave site to another but they do not do as they are asked.”

Hasnawi, the undertaker, says he is surprised by such accusations, “Every profession has a minority who abuse their position but this does not tarnish the reputation of the rest.”

His colleague, Majeed Hatem Abu Saibeh, a tanned thin man reading a cultural magazine, dismisses the view that bloodshed is good for business.

“Undertakers would rather have security than money,” he said. He regards the recent drop in demand for undertakers’ services as a good omen for Iraq’s security.

Yousif says he is glad he no longer buries the victims of violence. Speaking Najafi slang with a still-discernible Egyptian accent, he said, “We thank God the situation has returned to normal and we now bury the coffins of elderly and accident victims.”

“War helped me find work at the cemetery. I hope no one else finds a job here for the same reason.”

The inscriptions above the graves open a window onto three decades of bloody Iraqi history. Victims of the war with Iran, the Gulf war, the Shia uprising against Saddam Hussein and the invasion of Iraq in 2003 lie side by side. The nameless dead from the recent sectarian conflict have been housed in a north-western extension of the cemetery.

Epitaphs describe those killed in war as martyrs or victims of betrayal. Najah Abu Saibeh is conducting a survey of the cemetery and says headstones with such titles appear less frequently now that the worst of the violence has abated.

Nonetheless, he estimates that conflict of some kind or other is responsible for about 60 per cent of the millions of graves at the cemetery. The cemetery’s Arabic name, Wadi al-Salam, means Valley of Peace.

Faris Haram is an IWPR-trained reporter in Najaf.
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