The funeral service for Bishop Luka al-Khouri at Mariamiyah Cathedral in Damascus, 6/1/2021 (Greek Orthodox Patriarchate of Antioch and All the East)
DAMASCUS — An economic crisis born of war and the depreciation of the Syrian pound has made life difficult for residents of regime-controlled areas of Syria. It has made death difficult too, through increased funeral and burial costs that do not differentiate between the religion or sect of the dead.
After more than 11 years of upheaval in Syria, which has driven more than 90 percent of the country’s residents below the poverty line, burial and funeral rituals overwhelm Christians and Muslims alike. Death has become a heavy burden for low-income people of all faiths.
Christians in Damascus and its surrounding countryside are struggling with “pre- and post-burial rituals, in light of the high prices that have affected everything,” said Metropolitan Bishop Atallah, of the Greek Orthodox Patriarchate of Antioch and All the East in Damascus. Adding to this, “some Christian communities cling to costly customs and traditions,” he told Syria Direct, asking to be identified by his first name only.
Syria today is home to an estimated 638,000 Christians, according to figures published by the NGO Open Doors in its 2022 Index of Persecution of Christians in Countries Worldwide. They make up three percent of Syria’s population, down from 10 percent before 2011.
Burial rites and customs
For Christians in Syria, including in Damascus and Reef Dimashq, burial ceremonies include printing an obituary and posting it to the door of the church in the neighborhood of the deceased, as well as on the door of the person’s house. Mourners gather in front of the house to accompany the funeral procession to the church, where “a mass and prayer for the dead is held,” Atallah said. The funeral procession, accompanied by the bishop or priests, then goes to the cemetery.
Previously, the grandeur of a funeral “reflected the social and financial standing of the deceased,” the bishop said. Today, most funerals have become “ordinary,” he added, while lamenting “disparities even in death.”
Those disparities, depending on financial means, range from “inviting several denominations, nuns, charitable organizations, a choir playing funeral melodies and wreaths of natural roses” to simply “inviting one clergyman and [using] rented iron wreaths,” he said.
Before March 2011, burial and funeral costs ranged between SYP 35,000 and SYP 45,000 ($700-$900 according to the exchange rate at the time), and included the price of the coffin, church opening fees and wages for the priest. Also part of the cost is the “morsel of mercy [luqmat al-rahma],” food offered on behalf of the soul of the deceased, said Fahad, whose father died two months ago and was buried in his home village of Arna, in Reef Dimashq.
Today, mourning and burial costs for Christians in and around Damascus can reach SYP 1 million ($253 according to the current parallel market exchange rate of SYP 3,945 to the dollar), not including the “morsel of mercy,” which people are trying to do without under the current circumstances, Fahad told Syria Direct.
Although the current cost in dollars is less than half of what it was before 2011, it coincides with an unprecedented economic crisis in Syria, and is ten times the average monthly public sector salary in the country of an estimated SYP 92,000 ($23).
As a result, the 44-year-old had to borrow SYP 750,000 ($190) to cover the costs of his father’s burial rites, as his salary of SYP 120,000 ($30) as a government employee in Damascus was not enough to cover the expense.
This past April, Tony, an electrical appliance maintenance worker from the al-Duwaylah district of Damascus, lost his father. Due to the family’s economic circumstances, “we cut the costs of the burial and funeral ceremonies down to the minimum,” said the 37-year-old, who asked to be identified by his first name only.
The family paid SYP 50,000 ($12.50) to rent a hearse to transport Tony’s father to the Bab Sharqi cemetery, and SYP 350,000 ($89) for a coffin. Instead of distributing food to the mourners, the family served only bitter coffee, he told Syria Direct. The family did not pay church fees because their church is funded by the parish.
Christian funerals vary from one region to another, according to “each region’s customs and traditions,” and it is not possible to “mix burials between the Christian denominations—Orthodox, Catholic, Protestant. Each has its own burial place,” Johnny, a priest in Damascus, told Syria Direct. If a church is “funded by the parish, then it does not charge an opening fee,” he added.
The wages requested by some priests and bishops for coming to the burial ceremony can reach SYP 300,000 ($75), added the priest, who lives in Bab Sharqi, a Christian area of Damascus with a cemetery by the same name.
Some Christian families refuse to bury their dead without a coffin, which is “one of our rituals of burying the dead, and cannot be abandoned under any circumstance,” according to Fahad, who paid SYP 300,000 ($76) for his father’s coffin. “The body of the deceased cannot be placed in the soil without a coffin,” he said.
No religious text or custom requires relatives of the deceased to pay these costs, especially burial in a coffin, said Metropolitan Bishop Atallah. They can “suffice with opening the church and receiving mourners only,” he said, but traditions are what decide.
Atallah once asked people to “do away with burial in a coffin, because of its high cost,” he said, but they “refused, despite their poor material conditions.” The relatives of the deceased “insist on some burial and funeral rituals even though they are a tradition, not a religious duty.”
Even a hearse “can be dispensed with, and the casket [can be] lifted on people’s shoulders if the distance to the cemetery is short,” he said.
But as the economic conditions of Syrians, including Christians, deteriorate, some families have started to let go of certain customs, Johnny, the priest in Bab Sharqi, said. In the Reef Dimashq city of Qatana and the town of Jdeidat Artouz, some Christian families have “given up on buying coffins, due to their high price and [people’s] difficult conditions.”
This report was originally published in Arabic and translated into English by Mateo Nelson.