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Grave Business in Iran

by FARSHID ALYAN in Tehran

23 Dec 2010 17:303 Comments

In Tehran cemeteries, rich and poor, loyal soldiers and dissidents are marked according to their status in death as in life.

[ dispatch ] In the cemeteries of Tehran, each gravestone tells a story. One grave has an expensive headstone engraved with an image of the deceased or religious symbols, while another is marked by a simple slab. A soldier killed in the war with Iraq is commemorated for his courage, while people executed for their political beliefs are remembered only by a few broken pieces of stone.

Cemeteries are among the few places where Persian poetry is a visible presence. Many gravestones carry a line or two by a poet, classic or modern -- "If you come to see me, come gently and slowly," or "One whose heart was sustained on love will never die."

Poetry is a favored form of commemoration whether or not the deceased had any interest in literature.

When an interment takes place, the undertakers provide, for a fee, a simple headstone bearing the individual's name and date of birth and death.

For most families, this is not enough, and they will spend up to US$1,500 on a moderately ornate gravestone -- six months' wages for a manual laborer in Iran. A truly fancy one made of imported marble or granite could come to $25,000.

DigitalGravestone.jpgAccording to Islamic tradition in Iran, graves were usually covered with a horizontal stone. But these days they commonly have a vertical headstone as well, often with a portrait of the deceased. At least one manufacturer offers digitally printed color images.

It is as much about the social standing of the family as remembering the dead. Traditional attitudes demand an impressive monument if one is to avoid accusations of indifference to the dead.

"We have an album showing different designs that people can choose from depending on how much they want to spend and what their social position is," Mahmoud, a gravestone seller, said.

The gravestone business is booming, and with it imports of the appropriate kinds of stone, even though Iran has plenty of quarries of its own. Imports from Greece, Brazil, India, and China are now common, although stone from the latter two countries is regarded as inferior and liable to crack.

Yusef, who designs and sells gravestones from a shop close to the Behesht-e Zahra cemetery in southern Tehran, says that in the 20 years he has been in the trade, customers have become increasingly demanding, seeking ever more ornate models.

"Once there were just 30 of us taking commissions for this cemetery, and we just engraved the name of the deceased on the stone. But as soon as it became possible to print portraits of the dead onto stone, everybody asked for it," he said.

Now, he said, "sometimes people spend so much on the burial and gravestone that they have to borrow money to be able to pay for it."

"People see it as very important to decorate the gravestones of their dead," he added, noting that such views persisted even though some senior Shia clerics disapprove of so much show.

Until about 15 years ago, Tehran residents were able to use more or less any design they liked, and gravestones were placed so haphazardly that some sections of Behesht-e Zahra become dangerous when it was wet.

The authorities subsequently imposed restrictions on design and inscriptions, and required that installation be carried out by cemetery administrators.

In other parts of Iran, the new rules have yet to be applied as rigorously as in the capital.

The 200,000 soldiers and civilians killed in the eight-year war with Iraq in the 1980s form a special category. Their graves are carefully tended, as surviving relatives try to keep their memory alive. Their gravestones often have a box containing personal items like wedding rings or flowers.

"The stone and box have been here for almost 30 years now," said a woman whose 20-year-old son, Hamid, was killed in the war. "It's like my son's home now. I come here every weekend, wash his gravestone, and clean the box, just like when I cleaned his room."

Meanwhile, those who fell foul of the system in life are deprived of any kind of grave marker.

"Every time I put a simple stone on my son's grave, some people break it, but I don't give up and I put another gravestone there," said Azam, whose son was executed in the 1980s for opposing the Islamic Republic.

The new rules are now being used against her, as she has been told she cannot bring a gravestone inside the cemetery without permission from administrators.

In a western corner of Behesht-e Zahra's Section 38, there is an expanse of arid land that contrasts with its green surroundings. Dozens of top military officers who conspired in a failed assassination plot against Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini in the early months after the Islamic Revolution are buried in a mass grave here.

The Khavaran neighbourhood in southeastern Tehran is believed to be the burial place of hundreds of political prisoners executed in the 1980s. Although it is not known exactly who is buried here, relatives of those executed have tried to place a memorial at the site, but have been prevented from doing so by the security forces.

Farshid Alyan is the pseudonym of a Tehran-based journalist and photographer.

Copyright © 2010 Mianeh

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May the souls of all rest in peace.

12th Imam / December 25, 2010 5:42 AM

So leeme get this straight: the economy is supposed to be in dire straights yet people are spending more on status items like grave markers than ever before? And, Iran is supposed to be economically isolated, yet imports of materials for this status industry are at an all-time high?

Maybe we could apply ourselves a bit more analytically with this, and set aside the demonization narrative for a change.

Pirouz / December 25, 2010 4:12 PM

Honouring and paying regard to our dead is a human need, not a luxury. Choosing a dignified way to memorialise our loved ones is quite literally the last thing we can do for them - it should not be held up as though it were a "frivolity" or showy "status item".

Mormon Socialist / December 28, 2010 2:13 PM