As violence falls in Iraq, cemetery workers feel the pinch

The cemetery, called the Valley of Peace, is the site of miles and miles of Shiite graves, December 19, 2005. The city of Najaf now imports the sorrow of the nations buried under sand colored tombs. They say about 20 percent of the bodies now come to them, many killed in bombs and gunfights. (Hassan Abdul Razak/KRT)
The cemetery, called the Valley of Peace, is the site of miles and miles of Shiite graves, December 19, 2005. The city of Najaf now imports the sorrow of the nations buried under sand colored tombs. They say about 20 percent of the bodies now come to them, many killed in bombs and gunfights. (Hassan Abdul Razak/KRT) KRT

NAJAF, Iraq — At what’s believed to be the world’s largest cemetery, where Shiite Muslims aspire to be buried and millions already have been, business isn't good.

A drop in violence around Iraq has cut burials in the huge Wadi al Salam cemetery here by at least one-third in the past six months, and that’s cut the pay of thousands of workers who make their living digging graves, washing corpses or selling burial shrouds.

Few people have a better sense of the death rate in Iraq.

"I always think of the increasing and decreasing of the dead,” said Sameer Shaaban, 23, one of more than 100 workers who specialize in ceremonially washing the corpses. “People want more and more money, and I am one of them, but most of the workers in this field don't talk frankly, because they wish for more coffins, to earn more and more.”

Dhurgham Majed al Malik, 48, whose family has arranged burial services for generations, said that this spring, private cars and taxis with caskets lashed to their roofs arrived at a rate of 6,500 a month. Now it’s 4,000 or less, he said.

Malik said that the daily tide of cars bearing coffins has been a barometer of Iraq’s violence for years. The number of burials rose and fell several times during Saddam Hussein’s persecution of Shiites, and it soared again during the eight years of the Iran-Iraq war in the 1980s.

Then in the 1990s, the daily average fell to 150 or less, Malik said. With the current war, the burials again reached 300 daily.

In the early days of the war, some bodies brought for burial had been victims of Saddam, found by their families in unmarked mass graves. Later, there were surges; September 2005 marked a high point after a stampede during a Shiite Muslim festival killed hundreds on a Baghdad bridge. More than 1,300 were buried in a single day, Malik said.

The cemetery workers aren’t immune to violence. In 2004, militia fighters loyal to the anti-American militant cleric Muqtada al Sadr and coalition forces fought in the cemetery, and burial operations had to stop.

Afterward, many cemetery workers were killed or injured by bombs left behind. Their work remained hazardous until U.S. and Iraqi military teams cleared the explosives, Malik said.

Najaf, a city of about 600,000 people, is built around the gold-covered Imam Ali Mosque, a shrine to one of the most revered figures in Shiite Islam who grew up in the home of the prophet Muhammad and later became his son-in-law.

The city, with the shrine and graveyard, is considered the third-most important holy site for Shiite Muslims, after Mecca and Medina. It attracts millions of pilgrims each year — and tens of thousands of funeral parties.

The Wadi al Salam cemetery — its name translates as “Valley of Peace” — dates to the 7th century. Its mud-brown jumble of crypts and rectangular and domed brick and marble tombs stretches to the horizon. It’s six miles long, two miles wide and grows by acres every day.

Imam Ali himself is said to have pronounced it the entrance to paradise. And so the Shiites come with their dead.

The burials aren’t expensive, usually $200 or less, but many people draw their income from them.

When a family arrives — after going through the indignity of having the coffin searched repeatedly for explosives — the body is taken to be washed at one of five family-owned businesses. Female bodies are washed by teams of women. Men wash the male bodies.

The bodies are then carefully wrapped in white cotton shrouds, made in factories in Najaf that also export them. Then the bodies can be taken to the tomb of Imam Ali for a ceremony that includes circling the imam’s tomb.

After prayers, the coffin is borne to the gravesite. There, professional preachers are paid to recite verses from the Quran. The family and the gravedigger remove the body from the coffin and ease it into the grave, placing the head in a niche dug at the end of the grave that faces Mecca.

After the burial, there is another prayer, then workers build a tomb over the grave.

The sights and smells of working with the bodies, particularly those torn by war, are hardly pleasant, but it becomes a mundane job like any other, said Jawad Abuseba, 40.

His family has dug graves for more than 300 years, he said. His hands are thick with calluses after 22 years of digging with a shovel, basket and pickaxe. With their nails torn and their skin gray, his hands look as though they're dead, too.

"There is nothing beautiful in this career, but I cannot do any another job," Abuseba said.

Shiites feel so strongly about being buried here that when it’s too dangerous to travel, families have buried their loved ones elsewhere temporarily, then disinterred them for reburial here.

Even with less violence, many of those buried here are victims of the war, and the tragedy of each loss offers a counterpoint to workers’ worries about money.

On a recent day, after the ritual washing, four male relatives carried a coffin containing the scorched and torn body of Mohammed Hazim, 33. Three women trailed, weeping.

Hazim, a member of the radical Mahdi Army militia, had been killed in a U.S. attack in Diyala province, his brother, Ali, said.

“Death to infidel America and the agent Iraqi government,” the family chanted again and again.

At the shrine, security guards stopped the procession to check the coffin for explosives before allowing the men to take it inside. Later, at the grave, the men cried and the three women fell to their knees shrieking and flinging fistfuls of sand into their hair, a gesture of extreme grief.

“We Iraqis are full with sadness and tragedies now,” Ali Hazim said. “I swear by the name of Allah that each house bears some weight of sadness and of tragedy, and this is the reality of Iraqis now."

For the laborers in the Valley of Peace, it was just another workday, one they faced with a matter-of-fact attitude unnerving to those who deal with death less frequently.

“Certainly, when the number of dead increases I feel happy, like all workers in the graveyard,” said Basim Hameed, 30, a body washer. “This happiness comes from the increase in the amount of money we have."

Death is something everyone must face, he noted. “My job demands death, and this is our fate, all of us.”