Death and the city

July 28, 2019

With space shrinking for the dead, the price of graves is rising

Death and the city

"It has become expensive to die. Burial in the Miani Sahib graveyard now costs about Rs30,000 a grave," observes Dr Ajaz Anwar who leads the Lahore Conservation Society.

He points out that Miani Sahib was quite far from the Walled City, but then the "city spilled over" in its linear expansion. "People disempowered by urban development took refuge in the graveyard," he states, adding that it allowed for the graveyard to become an indicator of the state of urban planning in the city.

Miani Sahib, the largest graveyard in Lahore, spread over 150 acres, is also one of the oldest in the region. It dates back to the Mughal era. Yet, Miani Sahib has nearly run out of space.

A story aired on a private TV channel in May last year prompted suo motu action by the Supreme Court and the graveyard committee was asked to submit a report on the issue. A commission was formed to review the encroachments later. The ‘encroachments’ were not limited to 16-marla ahatas (compounds) owned by wealthy families but also workshops and a school -- even a marriage hall built on seven marlas. All of these establishments were razed to the ground as per court orders.

Caught between their purpose of accommodating the dead, and the challenges posed by urban sprawl as space for the living continues to shrink, graveyards continue to be an important concern in how a city is imagined.

"Usually, graveyards are not located in the heart of a town. Normally, in any historic settlement, people bury their dead outside the city," says Kamil Khan Mumtaz, a renowned architect.

"Over time, however, as a city expands, some of the graveyards get swallowed," he notes.

Dr Anwar agrees that it is the city that "reaches or follows" the graveyard through roads and developments, and engulfs it eventually. He cites the example of Bulleh Shah who was buried away from Kasur city for alleged heresy but Kasur had "followed" him.

Amidst urban development, graveyards can be a site of consolation in a city, believes Dr Anwar. "Whenever my friend, my age, over 70, is unhappy or worried, he goes to visit his parents’ graves. My parents are buried next to each other in Iqbal Town’s Karim Block graveyard. It was hard to arrange for the spots because of lack of space. Graveyards are a spiritual and psychological necessity," he adds.

"Usually, graveyards are not located in the heart of a town. Normally, in any historic settlement, people bury their dead outside the city," says Kamil Khan Mumtaz. "Over time, however, as a city expands, some of the graveyards get swallowed," he notes.

Lawyer Abdullah Malik, who was on the commission set up to review the encroachments on the land of Miani Sahib by the Supreme Court says that they found that about 32 kanals in this graveyard had been encroached upon. He mentions that every housing society is required to mortgage 30 percent of its plots up until such time that the developer builds a playground, a school and a graveyard. "Only after this has happened, is an NOC (No Objections Certificate) issued to the developer," he adds.

"But in practice, the developer sells the land kept for graveyards, for instance, after getting the NOC. This creates a problem," he adds.

Dr Anwar laments the lack of maintenance in Lahore’s graveyards, arguing that people often leave behind plastic bags in which they bring rose petals for the graves of their loved ones and that trees in graveyards are often neglected because graveyards do not exist in the public imagination as ‘green spaces’ with their own ecology.

"Graveyards have been a neglected area when it comes to urban policy," says Salman Sufi, who was leading the Board of Governors of the Shehr-e-Khamoshan project, which was abandoned about a year ago.

Shehr-e-Khamoshan was an initiative of the previous Punjab government. The model graveyard has been replicated in Sargodha and Faisalabad. Ever since the graveyards became functional, around 600 graves have been occupied.

Shehr-e-Khamoshan is located in Kahna, spreading over 89 kanals with a capacity for 8,000 graves. The graveyard has its own janazgah with ceiling fans, which can accommodate 500 people. It also has cold storage capacity for 30 bodies, two ambulances, and electric excavators to dig graves. There is also the facility of live-streaming burial, for relatives who are overseas. In addition, the graveyard also has a crematorium. The management is still in the process of setting up a helpline.

"Losing a loved one is a painful event.  The processes involved in arranging a burial are equally painful. One has to look for a place, one has to arrange for ghusl and a hearse service and so forth. The Shehr-e-Khamoshan project was conceived as a model project and a one-stop solution to all these issues,"

"All services are provided under one roof. They can be arranged over phone. When people call in, we ask: ‘Can you afford a burial?’ They pay whatever they can afford as a donation. The total cost is between Rs10,000 and Rs15,000," he says.

The longevity of such a project was always a subject of speculation, concedes Sufi.

"We discussed various options. We also talked about burying people in a biodegradable capsule buried in the ground so that it becomes a tree. Slowly the graveyard becomes a forest. But we did our research and also talked to some religious leaders. It was important to keep them on board," he explains.

In July 2017, he approached the imam at Badshahi Masjid to announce the project and share details about it during the Friday sermon himself. He then delegated his team to approach imams at other mosques to announce the project too. The project, in his view, was not political but one that was in public interest.

"One year on, nothing has been done to extend the utility of the project. It is a project very close to my heart. The two ambulances we started with were donations, for instance," says Sufi.

The Shehr-e-Khamoshan project has had a tough time in Lahore since June and in Sargodha and Faisalabad since April because of non-payment of salaries to staff - grave diggers and gardeners in particular. The project management itself is awaiting the constitution of a new board of governors. The amount that has to be paid to workers stands at a meagre Rs 1.3 million.

However, there have been some developments in the last week. A new DG has been appointed.

"Of late, graveyards have become good business," says Dr Anwar regretting the lack of solutions in the public sector as burial space is shrinking. Environmental lawyer and activist Ahmad Rafay Alam uses the example of schools to explain how the private sector steps in when the public sector fails at effective service delivery.

"Shehr-e-Khamoshan is essentially a government-subsidised burial service. Money has been invested into it already and that money would go to waste if it ceases to be functional," warns Alam.

Death and the city