Image Credit: Razan Matar

Echoes of Life and Death in Lebanese Graveyards

Stepping into the iron gates of the Mar Mtir graveyard in Beirut, the sound of car engines and honking horns filled the air. The cemetery, situated in the city, is nestled between old village-style houses that have been occupied by residents for generations. 

The juxtaposition between the ceaseless hum of human life and the stillness of the cemetery is striking. Homeowners hang their laundry on their balconies, their daily routines playing out with the silent view of their neighbors in the cemetery.

The architecture of the graveyards follows the style of other Christian cemeteries in the city of Beirut,with drawer compartments and gated small rooms where the deceased have pictures and plaques of their names on the wall,unlike Western graveyards with rows of tombstones marking each burial site. 

The Mar Mtir graveyard was a maze of gated rooms, and small door compartments holding one or multiple individuals per family.

In a world where time never stops ticking, graveyards remain a stark reminder of the ones we’ve lost. For many, they are a place of commemoration, a physical space where the ones who’ve passed can be visited and honored. Week by week families come to leave religious decorations and a bouquet of fresh flowers, offering a small prayer as a brief farewell to their loved ones till they meet again. 

In this way, graveyards are an expression of the human need to remember and respect those that departed. However, graveyards are more than just memorials to the dead. They are also a reflection of one’s culture and heritage of the communities they once served. Each tombstone, monument, and inscription tells a story.

Gaia Sophia Khairallah’s picture sits atop of her grave, which is another drawer compartment in the Mar Mtir cemetery. Her two dolls lay idly next to her portrait with a small angel figurine watching over them. It’s a reminder of the little girl who once played with those very dolls, who laughed and cried, and had  dreams.

“Here lies the physical body of Gaia, her soul is in heaven and in our hearts”. Graveyards are a time capsule of the memories left behind by those who have passed on. They offer a glimpse into the historical and cultural traditions that shaped their lives. 

Religious ideologies play a significant role in the design and layout of graveyards. In some communities, cemeteries are considered sacred spaces, a symbol of the existence of an afterlife where the souls who have gone get to rest. As such, cemeteries take on a spiritual significance, embodying the connection between the living and the dead.

As one follows the pathway beyond Gaia’s grave, a scene of destruction and decay greets the eye. Underground burials have crumbled, their once-solid structures now reduced to rubble. Those still standing are drawer compartments within walls, their marble burial doors scattered and broken. 

Replaced instead by a big makeshift square blue cardboard taped onto the space where the door once was. Near one of these graves lies a young man by the name of Jimmy Tidory. New and old flowers alike still adorn his mantle, with the constant swirl of flies around the flowers. 

On his burial door, he still receives taped messages from his niece Serena. The notes range from ones written after the holidays or on his birthday. One of the notes she left reads: “Forever in my heart and mind khalo Jimmy. This isn’t goodbye this is simply see you later.”

Graveyards are a mirror of the human experience, serving as a bridge between the past and present, life and death. They allow for the reflection of those who have come before us and honor them meaningfully. 

Beirut blast breeds loss and mourning

In the moments before the Beirut explosion of 2020, a convertible Mercedes was stuck in traffic on the freeway next to the port. A protest song echoed on, and a young woman sitting in the back beckoned for our attention. She sang along to the song, her voice carrying the weight of her convictions. 

My father asked her where she was going. Her answer was immediate and resolute: “We are going to overthrow the government; we are going to protest in Karantina.” She wore a bright smile on her face, and her sunglasses sat on top of her head like a crown. Ten minutes later, as we made our way to Bourj Hammoud, the world and ground itself shook as the explosion tore through the heart of Beirut.

Posts went viral on social media, showing the explosion from different angles. As the horror ensued, I witnessed a pregnant woman who was left standing in the residue of glass as men ushered to her aid as she clenched her belly and yelled. As the catastrophe cleared, cars drove through the highway with their roofs shrunken down.

People continued to drive on to check up on their loved ones. Yet, the one thought that remained was “Did the woman make it out of Karantina alive?” For those in the convertible Mercedes, the events of that day would forever be seared into their own memories or the memories of their loved ones. 

They set out with a purpose in mind, but instead witnessed and were part of a tragedy that changed Beirut forever. Beirut was sent into a state of shock, with the full extent of the destruction still unclear.

Families huddled around their televisions, waiting for news of missing loved ones. If they were found dead, they were meant to arrange for the burial services to take place. Yet, cemeteries were dealing with another apocalyptic type of catastrophe. 

Cemeteries break, and the people accomodate

Pictures on Twitter surfaced of a cemetery in Mar Mikhael. Bodies emerged from the drawers of the walls, doors were blown away, and the smell of death was thick in the air. Coffins were stacked on top of each other like a game of Jenga, with one wrong move threatening to bring down the entire structure.

Trees that once provided a sense of life and vitality to the cemeteries were now uprooted, their branches and leaves scattered across the pathways. Each tombstone with a name engraved was left in fragments of letters as if someone had played a round of Scrabble with them. 

Each stone was a testament to a life that was overshadowed by death. Even in death people were not allowed to rest, another reminder of the fragility of existence from the beyond.

This issue continues to persist today, with burial doors still left open and unfixed,replaced instead with blue cardboard tape instead of proper doors. 

“It’s because of the explosion,” said Maria, a secretary at the Mar Mitr cemetery. “That’s why there aren’t doors for some of the buried.”

Her response left me puzzled. For a massive cemetery with a beautifully designed church, there were still remnants of the destruction made by the Beirut explosion.

Upon exploring the space, the top floors of the administration are filled by several bedrooms in good condition, numbered in French: Chambre 1, Chambre 2… 

At the end of the hallway the director’s office, adorned with opulent furniture, and luxurious wooden tables, a bookshelf filled with books caught my eye, and the light was left on even though the room lay unoccupied. 

On the roof outside the office, I was greeted by an unexpected sight. Two plastic chairs and a table, with beer bottles emptied and left on the floor,with a grill left on the side as if it was there for a barbeque. 

The rows of gated burial rooms are merged into the administrative building, with what looks to be a lived-in apartment right on top of the graves. The oddest part was the rows of solar panels on the roof, clearly set up for the cemetery and its church.

Yet, the burial doors of the deceased remain unfixed.

Image by Razan Matar

“Our family is buried in this cemetery, if we wanted to fix it how would we go about the process?” I asked.

 Maria’s response was straightforward, “Is it an underground burial, or a compartment?” 

“It doesn’t have a door”, I responded with confusion. 

“Then it needs to be removed because the graves that are underground, the room is collapsed and filled with debris, there is no fixing it” she replied.

“Okay, but how much would fixing the graves without doors cost?” I responded. 

“If you have someone to come and fix it for you, it depends on them, if you use our services, it’s 125$ for the door,” Maria concluded. 

The Mar Mtir cemetery usually includes a yearly fee that the families must pay. Yet, with the Beirut explosion, and the continuing economic crisis, the system has changed. 

As I looked around, it was hard to reconcile this reality with the fact that the cemetery clearly invested in solar panels. If they had funds for this, why not use them to fix the graves and allow families to pay in installments or upon the burial of their next family member?

The answer, it seemed, was rooted in corruption that had plagued Lebanon for years, particularly amid the economic crisis. As I delved deeper into the issue, I discovered new levels and layers of misconduct. 

The truth of the matter was that those in power had used the crisis to enrich themselves while leaving the rest of the country to suffer the consequences. The neglect of the burial sites was just one symptom of a larger problem that seemed insurmountable.

The Beirut explosion left a mark on graves such as Mar Mtir. The walls of the cemetery are witnesses of its reminder. Yet, other cemeteries in Lebanon remained untouched by the explosion or were quickly fixed revealing the contrast between not only the burial styles themselves but their management. 

The Beirut War cemetery, located on the outskirts of the city, stands as a testament to the foreign way of burying the dead. It is a place of quiet remembrance, where individual soldiers who died during the First and Second World Wars are laid to rest. Each tombstone is adorned with a planted flower, a symbol of care and respect Lebanese cemeteries don’t offer their own deceased but are given to the foreign power that was in Lebanon. 

A vast green lawn spread across the massive lot, a serene oasis amid chaos.

Saint Mary’s Orthodox Church in Hamra suffered damage from the explosion, but it’s cemetery has been fixed, with only new damages being caused by weather conditions. 

A note by the administration is left next to every grave that was affected: “The owners of this burial spot must report back to the church’s administration on the next visit to the deceased.” 

Unlike, Mar Mtir’s huge stature, Saint Mary’s is a more intimate and small cemetery, with a limited number of burial compartments stacked on a single wall for each family. The cemetery adopts the Lebanese style of burials, which prioritizes compartments over underground burials.

Father Raffi, who works at the Lebanese Geitaoui Hospital, explained that the Lebanese style of burial is driven by practicality. The geographical lot sizes of the cemeteries are small while the number of families being buried there is larger. The different styles of burial and management among the cemeteries in Lebanon reveal a lot of complexities regarding the impact of the economic crisis, and the Beirut blast shows the true structural powers at play whether it’s through foreign powers or the corrupt structures present in Lebanese establishments even in churches.

Father Yeghia, currently an Armenian missionary, had gone to greater lengths to explain that this style of burial is specifically done to house the number of deceased families – it is this style that he has adopted for years. He explained that in Armenian and Georgian graveyards, because of the abundance of land, there is no need to resort to the usage of drawer compartments (expanding vertically). 

If the burial ground is crowded with corpses, the bones of the deceased are moved to a special drawer that is numbered and recorded in a special registry.

Another issue with Lebanon’s burial style is that it has been proven unhygienic.

In Saint Mary’s Orthodox Church, I had attended a funeral where they loaded the deceased into a compartment above ground and closed the door by applying a white material around its edges. When I returned a week later, the air was thick with the stench of death, and flies and insects hovered over the door, making their way in by any means necessary. The darkness of the night added another layer of discomfort, with the sounds of cockroaches scurrying next to your feet.

“It is cleaner to bury the deceased underground. At the end of the day Jesus said ‘You will turn back into the dust of the earth again, but your spirit will return to God who gave it’,” said Father Yeghia. Maria noted that there really isn’t any other alternative possible other than burying people above ground (in compartments) to create more space. 

Cremation: The “taboo” with the right solution

In the West, the natural alternative would be cremation. This is a taboo discussion in Lebanon due to the more traditional and cultural elements of religion in play. 

According to Father Yeghia, the protestant church had allowed cremation starting in 1898. The Russian Orthodox Church opposes cremation, yet many Orthodox churches accept it in certain circumstances. In Islam and Judaism, it is not accepted at all. 

Although the Vatican church and the French do not object to cremation, they prefer traditional burial over cremation because as Father Yeghia emphasizes: “God is the master of creation and not man, and since man is not the master of his own body, he is not master of his mortal body.”

According to the Lebanon Daily News, in the first half of 2022, there had been an increase in the number of demands for cremation. 

In 2021, it was investigated that there had been over 980 cases of cremation, with each having to be investigated by the coroner’s office. In 2019, the number was much lower, with 772 cremations. This increase is hypothesized to be due to the COVID pandemic, but it is much deeper than that. 

The cremation process is a good alternative because it is cheaper for people who can’t afford the staggering costs of burial services due to the economic crisis.

Father Yeghia had explained that, during one of his conversations with his acquaintance, it became clear that his acquaintance prefers the cremation of his body and his wife’s in order to spare his two sons the trouble of having a burial service that requires more time and money.

Joseph Issaoui, a journalist and poet, shared with me his insights on the process based on his interviews with individuals who have undergone the process of cremating their family members on his Facebook show. According to Joseph, the acceptance of cremation in Lebanon varies depending on one’s religious affiliation. 

For Muslims, a Sheikh’s permission is required before proceeding with cremation, while for Christians, it is considered an acceptable alternative. However, there is still the issue of police intervention that concerns people, as the authorities need to ensure that the burning of the body is not a means of destroying evidence in a potential murder case. 

Joseph also revealed that there are currently two locations in Lebanon that offer cremation services: the LAU Medical Center (Rizk Hospital) and the American University of Beirut Medical Center. Other alternatives, such as burying the dead, are much harder to navigate,since,there are only two places in which people can cremate their loved ones, and when they do so there are a lot of jurisdictions they have to go through.

Burying loved ones causes financial burden, new study finds

The exorbitant cost of burying loved ones has become a major issue for many families, leading them to seek alternative options. Al-Monitor, an independent cover in the Middle East, stated that the raw material used to make coffins are sold in dollars, and prices can vary widely depending on the quality, design, and country of origin of these materials. 

The price of burial services can be as low as 100 dollars and as high as 2000 dollars. The ongoing economic crisis has only exacerbated the situation, with formal funeral services often foregoing the traditional serving of food due to financial constraints.

In the past year, two of the funerals I have attended did not include food. The high cost of importing the deceased from abroad and burying them is costly enough as it is. With many of them paying for their loved ones’ coffins and funerals in installments. Each burial service differs according to their package, and the burial services of Muslims cost less than for Christians, due to the absence of coffins.

In Maronite cemeteries, the cost of purchasing a new grave for one’s family can amount to 5000 dollars. For those seeking more affordable options, a used grave belonging to one other deceased individual (buried alone, without family) costs around 2000 dollars. Temporary graves, also known as common or union graves, cost about 200 dollars, and are reserved for those who do not own a burial site. 

After a number of years, the bones of those buried in the common burial site are placed in an ossuary to make room for the next person to be buried.  The dire economic situation has pushed some families to resort to desperate measures to make ends meet. During my visit to Mar Mtir, a burial compartment with a big red and white sign covering the door of the compartment caught my eye.

Image by Razan Matar

It was of a “JSK” logo – a brokerage company – stating that the burial compartment was available for rent. Families are renting their own burial graves as a means of making income. It seems that even in death, the Lebanese are searching for ways to cope with the ongoing economic crisis. 

Broken cemeteries, a broken economy, and a broken sense of moral compass. All these impact the way the living respect the dead. While several cemetereis did receive some financial compensation for the damages incurred during the explosion, many have gone on to use funds haphazardly. Many cemeteries have dispersed those funds for other means necessary, or for their own personal merits. 

Upon telling people about the solar panels that lined the rooftop of the cemetery, while the doors of the deceased were left broken, and empty, the same comment persisted when I divulged the information to friends, “It’s Lebanon, what did you expect?”

When I had asked Father Raffi if any of the cemeteries he oversaw were damaged he said, “no, our cemeteries were at the outskirts of the city, the damage was very minimal, and it was promptly fixed. The biggest cemetery that had been destroyed was Mar Mtir, the destruction there was massive, but I won’t get into that.” 

When I asked Maria for further information about the damages, she held her cards close to her chest, and simply stated “yes, there was damage, a lot of it, there are pictures of it.” When I asked to take a peek at these pictures, she informed me I needed permission from my university to access the visual pictures. Again, when I contacted a family friend, Maya, whose father is a priest and knows the director in charge of the Mar Mtir church and graveyard, the same comment was made. 

She also informed me that taking pictures is not permitted within the cemetery. I only found out much later, after I had taken visual pictures of the cemetery, and walked around carrying my camera nonchalantly while I received curious gazes. After I had taken pictures of the cemetery’s rooftop, the same woman that had been eyeing me from downstairs bumped into me on my way down the elevator and prompted me to talk to the cemetery’s secretary. There was the aura that I was being watched in some way and that the priest who sat next to the secretary’s office was not happy about me scouting the place.

Honoring the dead

Religious institutions wield enormous power and control, and those that manage them shape the way affairs are handled and how communities are brought together. In Lebanon, this same cycle is echoed on a larger scale in its economic and political sphere. More cemeteries are desperately needed in the cities, particularly in a way that is more hygienic and well-managed. 

The goal of adding more cemeteries is to minimize the consequences that have been depicted by current graveyards. Not only because of those managing them but also ones who scope out the lot and build these final resting places. A more horizontal architectural style that would allow for underground burials is a must, although more costly than those who choose to expand in a vertical manner like Mar Mtir, and Saint Mary’s Orthodox Church with drawer compartments and the deceased being buried one on top of the other.

To this end, it is crucial to consider alternative methods of honoring the dead beyond burials. Families do not have the means of paying for burying their loved ones, so the option of an alternative like cremation blocked by legislative, or religious reasons should be absolved in a more direct manner. Offering more choices allows families to pick the options that best suit their circumstances, and ultimately provides a means to honor their loved ones in a manner that is both respectful and untainted by corruption, destruction, and heartache.