Losing a parent is hard enough; the process of burial should not be. As I arrived in Karachi from Canada, three days after my father’s passing, jet-lagged and still trying to process my loss, I was hit with a tale one only hears in black comedies. Burying my father had been nothing short of an exercise in desperation, bribery and corruption.
In Islam, we must bury our dead immediately. We cannot cremate them, or lay them out in state, unlike in other religions. So the immediate availability of a gravesite is of utmost importance. Many families prepare for the inevitable well in advance, by reserving a grave in one of the city’s countless graveyards.
But we were never really a practical family. We always worked on a ’when-the time-comes’ assumption. But in Karachi — Pakistan’s largest city, its financial hub, only port and a teeming metropolis of over 20 million — time moves forward at breakneck speed. Assumptions don’t hold.
We had a family graveyard. A sprawling necropolis in one of the city’s many hearts, I remembered it to be vast, orderly and peaceful, despite the chaos outside its walls. Now, it was completely over-run with graves; it seemed that, if given a choice, they would happily have spilled over onto the surrounding streets. Our last visit there to pay respects had involved navigating treacherous pathways fashioned out of the graves of others: traversing the dead, some under crumbling gravel and sand, others under gleaming marble and stone. The dead had become the way to the dead. The dead were being buried over the dead. If it wasn’t for the graveyard caretakers and their uncanny ability to remember the location of each and every grave, we would not have been able to trace where our family members had been buried, such was the scale of deterioration and over-crowding.
This is the case in many of the graveyards across the city. There are apparently almost 200 graveyards in Karachi and, as official data is hard to come by, possibly more. Of these, a majority are intended for Muslims and only a handful for non-Muslims (i.e. Christians, Hindus and Zoroastrians). Less than half of the graveyards fall under the control of the City District Government of Karachi, while the majority are looked after by private associations. The sites looked after by the city are open to all Muslim denominations, regardless of where in the city they live. But many of these are in a state of neglect and disrepair. Many of those managed by private associations are better looked after, but are segregated on the basis of religion, ethnicity, administrative boundaries etc.
My father was buried in one of the latter, but not by our own choice.
A distant cousin who had been instrumental in helping my family secure a grave, narrated the ordeal to me in a frustrated, yet matter-of-fact, way when I returned, having been through a similar process with his own father a few years ago. Extended family, I was told, had scuttled all available human resources together and dispatched them to various graveyards across the city in search of an available grave. It didn’t help that my father passed away on Eid-ul-Azha, the day of ritual animal sacrifice for Muslims – and a public holiday.
Our family graveyard was obviously the first stop, but here the main issue was not a lack of space. The amount being requested for a smidgeon of land (that’s all one could assume was left available) was exorbitant. Another graveyard was under the control of a powerful local political party that wielded great influence over city matters and its caretakers first demanded to know the ethnicity of the deceased. Refusal to divulge this information led to them refusing the family permission even to enter. Other graveyards in nearby neighbourhoods refused to let anyone enter from our area. “This graveyard is only reserved for our residents”, they had claimed.
A small graveyard, tucked away in a quiet corner of an affluent neighbourhood, not all that far from our own, finally provided some respite. It had been officially closed on the municipal books, but the caretaker present that day allowed my father’s body to be lowered into his final resting place. Whether it was sheer luck, a little bit of palm-greasing, simple compassion for a difficult situation, or all of the above that did it (the cousin refused to divulge more detail, now that it was all done with), after spending two days in a morgue, my father was finally at peace.
This is one of the harsh realities of the city of my birth. The corruption that has seeped into its cores is almost impossible to dig out now. And even the dead are not spared. Graveyards in Pakistan are not necessarily places of sanctity either. Many are claimed to be sites of theft, rape and drug abuse. In Karachi, many graveyards are also unkempt, mismanaged and disorganised. Prices for graves range from expensive to exorbitant. And these do not include the costs of maintaining the grave: those are entirely the family’s concern.
The exclusivity of burial has taken on a life of its own. A scarcity of choice now controls the act of burial. In Canada — my other place of insight — the calm, almost sanitised orderliness of the process is an un-nerving comparison to the sordid reality in Karachi.
On a quest not to have to repeat the past, I decided to pay a visit to the relevant Cantonment Board Office in search of such “advance graves” for the aging members of my family.
This Office which was supposedly meant to deal with matters of my jurisdiction, since it bore its name in its title, strangely dealt only with the matters of a jurisdiction whose name it did not bear in its title. Sparkling yet sparse, the cavernous building held only two gentlemen idling away the afternoon. The question was asked, heads were scratched, phone calls were made and confirmations were received. The answer was a no. Residents of my particular area could not be buried anywhere in the vicinity.
I then visited the municipal office of my own area, a ramshackle and antiquated row of rooms that looked like something even ghosts would not want to haunt. I got a similar answer. There were no graveyards in my neighbourhood (of at least a few million residents). You will have to go further out, they said. But when I narrated the ordeal of my father’s burial to them, even they were shocked. “How can someone deny anyone a burial space? We are all Pakistanis!” Thankfully, I wasn’t the only one shaking my head in disbelief.
My recent sleuthing has found hope in a newer graveyard in one of the fast-developing affluent suburbs which is “open” for all. No religious denominations, no administrative restrictions. Just a place where everyone can be at peace, no matter where they live in the city. And on a recent visit to my father’s grave, it turned out there is still space for more graves in the depths of this “closed” graveyard; not that I intend to replicate our last experience, nor that they would let us in a second time now.
And so the saga continues to find decent resting places for my other family members. Even for myself, whenever my time comes. It’s not a morbid subject anymore in my family. It’s simply a practical one.
Themrise Khan has been an independent consultant in international development and migration for the last 20 years. She is also an occasional writer and recent blogger at www.lamehdood.wordpress.com