‘Trading in death to preserve life’: Damascus’s graveyard black market


November 8, 2015

In theory, every Syrian citizen has the right to buy a cemetery plot at a fixed price set by the state. In practice, however, limited cemetery space in Damascus and more than four years of war casualties have fueled a black market for grave sites.

Abu Salah al-Maydani, an activist from Damascus, tells Syria Direct’s Noura al-Hourani that while a cemetery plot’s official price is SP2,800 [$15], they are currently being bought and sold for thousands of dollars.

“People who own cemetery plots are selling them to get by,” al-Maydani says. “It is trading in death to preserve life.”

What are the roots of the ongoing “cemetery crisis?”

The problem of grave availability in Damascus existed before the revolution because of the lack of space in the city’s cemeteries. The issue was exacerbated during the revolution because of the increasing number of martyrs and victims. There is also the danger of burying bodies in the countryside because of the ongoing war. The result is an exorbitant increase of prices: graves range from SP750,000 [$3,952] to SP2 million [$10,592], depending on the grave and the location.

What circumstances cause someone to sell their grave?

Necessity and the poverty people live in, along with the rising price of foodstuffs pushed people to consider selling their grave plots. A public sector employee isn’t paid more than $70 per month; people are hungry and desperate. People who own cemetery plots are selling them to get by. It is trading in death to preserve life.

The price of the graves follows the black market. The state’s price is on the documents, but the buyer and seller agree on another amount. They are sold like houses, and each grave has a number and a code and is registered to a certain person.

What can people who have sold their plots, or those who never bought one, do in terms of burials?

They can petition the state to buy a grave, but there are conditions, among them that the buyer has to be over 60 years of age. These appeals are difficult and need time and personal connections. Priority is given to the dead from the regime and its fighters.

You can also buy a plot outside the city, but the going price for these is also expensive, approximately SP150,000 [$794]. If you can’t afford to purchase a plot, you can use the grave of a buried relative; the deceased can be buried on top of their relative if the religiously prescribed amount of time, seven years, has passed.

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