An overflowing necropolis

August 8, 2021

The graveyards have almost run out of space, due to the rise in deaths in 2020-21 due to the coronavirus, because people wanted to bury their family members in the nearest available graveyard. – Arif Hasan, Architect

People are willing to pay exorbitant prices to bury their loved ones immediately, due to the fear of the disease. – Gul Hasan, Gravedigger
People are willing to pay exorbitant prices to bury their loved ones immediately, due to the fear of the disease. – Gul Hasan, Gravedigger

As the population and property values rise, the space in Karachi’s graveyards is shrinking and burial has become a challenge for the lower- and middle-class people – a challenge that has been exacerbated by the Covid-19 pandemic. There are approximately 200 graveyards in Karachi, a city of over 20 million people. Many burial grounds have been closed down because they are full.

The poor worry about where they can bury their loved ones, as there is no space left in the graveyards close to them in Karachi. They are also worried about the expenses, which have skyrocketed. They struggle to afford grave space, transportation and other expenses to bury a loved one. The prices of grave plots in the city’s main graveyards have become unaffordable for lower and middle-class people. So, they reluctantly bury their dead in graveyards situated in rural areas or near Malir, the Hub River roads and in some parts of Balochistan, where burial plots are cheaper.

Imamuddin Baloch, a grave-digger at Mewa Shah Graveyard, tells The News on Sunday (TNS) that many people insist in their wills that they should be buried near the graves of their forefathers. Mewa Shah is one of the oldest and largest graveyards in Karachi. Some of the graves there are 250 years old. In the city, the space in graveyards has been almost exhausted. The government has allotted new lands for graveyards outside of Karachi in some rural areas, where people are reluctant to bury their relatives, Baloch says. Every community has their own space in Karachi’s graveyards, he says. They have constructed boundary walls around their allotments and erected community signboards.

Some of the communities claim that their ancestors had purchased these lands during the British era and that they have the legal ownership documents for these lands. The community elders also claim that they had paid one rupee as tax for the land, after it was allotted to them. This is why no one from outside the community is allowed to bury their relatives in these places in the city’s graveyards, Baloch says.

With the growing population and immigration from other provinces, the demand for burial plots is overwhelming the city, Dad Muhammad, 41, a caretaker at Mewa Shah tells TNS. He says that owing to an increasing number of deaths due to the pandemic, it has become difficult for people to find burial plots.

“My family has been taking care of graves here for over six decades. I have been serving and caring for the graves in Mewa Shah Graveyard for 25 years,” Dad Muhammad says, adding that when he started working as a caretaker, the cost of graves was affordable and graveyards had ample space. That is no longer the case.

Mewa Shah, Society Graveyard, Essa Nagri, Paposh Nagar, DHA Graveyard, Azizabad graveyard, Liaquatabad C1 area graveyard and Sakhi Hasan are the major burial grounds in the city. There is no space left in these. Dad Muhammad adds that now, the price of a grave plot has risen to Rs 25,000 to Rs 35,000 in a ‘common’ graveyard. There are two- and three-story graves in the Paposh Nagar and Essa Nagri graveyards, for which the gravediggers are charging between Rs 50,000 and Rs 60,000.

Architect, urban planner and social researcher Arif Hasan, says that the prices of common goods have risen exorbitantly in recent years, with the price of US dollar reaching Rs 163 Pakistani rupees. He believes that the inflation is, in part, responsible for the rising cost of grave plots. Over the last two decades, property values have almost doubled, and space in the southern port city is shrinking, as people from other cities have settled in Karachi to earn their livelihoods. The graveyards have almost run out of space due to the rise in deaths in 2020-21 due to the coronavirus, because people wanted to bury their family members in the nearest graveyard. The government has allocated land near Super Highway (now the M-9 Motorway), outside of Karachi, for a new graveyard.

“I purchased a grave at the Sakhi Hasan graveyard for Rs 6,000 to bury my brother, Noor-ul-Haq, 50, who died in 2000,” says Abdul Hai, 75, a complaint officer at the Human Rights Commission of Pakistan. “I regularly visit the grave and offer fateha prayers. I pay the caretaker Rs 400 per month to maintain the grave. Three years back, I went to Hong Kong for work. I came back almost three months later and was shocked to see that there was a new grave in place of my brother’s grave with the a lady’s name on it. The caretaker told me that they usually prepare a new grave in the same place, when no one visits the graves of their relatives. I contacted the local police and requested legal action.”

According to official statistics issued by the Health Department of Sindh on August 2, at least 6,021 people have died due to the pandemic in Sindh. Around 90 percent of these deaths were in Karachi, a provincial Health Department official said. Edhi Foundation president Faisal Edhi told TNS that over 5,000 people had died during the pandemic in Karachi, and the bodies of hundreds of covid-19-affected people were moved to graveyards by Edhi Ambulance service workers. Karachi has also witnessed many tragic incidents, including mass killings of innocent people in incidents of ethnic and sectarian violence, Edhi added.

“I dig and maintain the graves of 34 different communities in different graveyards of Karachi,” Gul Hasan, 35, tells TNS. He works at Punjabi Saudagran, Silawat, Dawoodi Bohra Jamaat, Katchi Memon Jamaat, Memon Jamaat, Katchi Turk Jamaat, Mughal, Sheikh and other communities’ graveyards. He says that the demand for graves has risen sharply due to the pandemic. People are willing to pay exorbitant prices to bury their loved ones immediately, due to the fear of the disease.

Gul Hasan says that most Baloch families have purchased burial plots in Hub, Windar, Uthal and other towns of Balochistan at lower prices. It is not easy to find a grave for a recent immigrant in Karachi’s graveyards. The cost of a grave in a major graveyard like the PECH Society’s graveyard on Tariq Road, or Ghizri in the DHA, is Rs 60,000 to Rs 100,000, Gul Hasan says, adding that in other graveyards the prices are a bit lower.

“There are over 200 graveyards in Karachi, and 39 of them are under the control of the Karachi Municipal Corporation (KMC),” Ali Hasan, a KMC spokesman tells TNS. There are 19 cemeteries for non-Muslims, including the Jewish Bani Israel graveyard in Mewa Shah, the Zoroastrian’s (Parsi) Tower of Silence in Mehmoodabad, the Christian’s Gora Qabaristan at Shahra-i-Faisal. There is no space for burial in six of Karachi’s main graveyards and they have been officially closed by the KMC, the spokesman says. He adds that the PECH Society Graveyard on Tariq Road, Sakhi Hasan graveyard, Saudabad cemeteries, Shah Faisal Cemetery (Colony Gate), Mewa Shah and Paposh Nagar graveyards have been officially declared closed.

The writer is a freelance journalist based in Karachi. He can be reached on Twitter @Zafar_Khan5

An overflowing necropolis