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Society

Disrupting Death: How Tech Is Shaking Up The Funeral Industry

Funeral undertakers belong to one of the oldest professions in the world. But now, start-ups want to disrupt old-fashioned funeral homes. Unafraid to tackle taboos, new services offer ways to live on digitally after death.

PARIS — The confrontation was aggressive but ultimately turned out to be beneficial. In late January, Lilian Delaveau deeply split the investors of French TV show “Who Wants To Be My Associate?” in which aspiring entrepreneurs present a pitch to experienced investors. The 27-year-old pitched Requiem Code, a QR code app that personalizes graves by displaying various memories of the deceased person in augmented reality when put on a funeral tablet.

“I completely disagree with your project. You are wiping out the contemplation. Each person should be allowed to keep a different memory,” the tourism professional Jean-Pierre Nadim told him.

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Requiem For A Stray Cat

At the mental health center where I work, we have always taken care of the area’s stray cats.

Birba had been around for a few years.

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Italy To India To Brazil, How COVID Has Trivialized Mass Death

We've gotten used to too many people dying, and too many dying alone.

-Analysis-

MILAN — I was recently alerted to an event I had missed here in Italy: A couple of weeks ago, as the government announced the easing of coronavirus restrictions and restaurant workers protested because Italy wasn't reopening fast enough, funeral parlors also took to the streets of Rome. It was "a funeral of funerals," they said.

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Photo Of The Week: This Happened In Brazil

One year into the coronavirus pandemic, Brazil registered its deadliest month in March. In the 31 days that have just passed, 66,573 people were killed by COVID-19, more than double the previous monthly high. The explosion of cases is largely blamed on the local virus variant, believed to be more contagious, having now pushed Brazil over the 300,000 mark in total coronavirus deaths, second only to the United States with 553,000. Currently, however the U.S. is down to under 1,000 daily deaths while Brazil is more than 3,000.

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Lebanon
Chloe Domat

In Lebanon, Syrian Refugees Run Out Of Space To Bury Their Dead

In Lebanon, the country with the highest number of refugees per capita in the world, a cemetery for Syrian refugees is running out of burial plots.

DARAYA — In the valley below the Lebanese village of Daraya lies a cemetery for Syrians. Large oak trees surround the graveyard, which smells of the herbal balm usually spread over the dead before funerals. Many of the graves are planted with fresh flowers.

At the end of a line of graves sits Abu Abdo, the man in charge of the cemetery. Abdo is not a refugee. He left Syria in 1993 to work as a plumber in neighboring Lebanon. He was well settled into his new life when war started back home. It seemed a distant tragedy — until he lost one of his own relatives in 2014.

"My aunt's husband died here in Lebanon. He was a refugee. For several days we couldn't find a spot to bury him," he says. "The corpse started to smell. It was very difficult." This is when Abdo came up with the idea of opening a cemetery especially for Syrians.

Abu Abdo receives requests for burials on WhatsApp.

With the help of a group of friends and a local NGO, he gathered enough money to buy a 16,145 square-ft (1,500 square-meter) piece of land in Daraya, the village where he lives, and opened the cemetery in January 2016. He has since buried 250 adults and more than 100 children — nearly all Syrian refugees from across Lebanon.

Syrians find out about Abdo's cemetery by word of mouth. Initially, he opened a Facebook page to advertise the graveyard, but he says the page was closed at the behest of Lebanese authorities. Now Abu Abdo receives requests for burials on WhatsApp. As the refugee crisis in Lebanon drags on, his business has grown. Funeral fees start at $150.

"I bury three to four people a week. I have about 100 spots left, then I need to get new land or bury people on top of each other," he says.

The initiative has attracted criticism from local villagers. "Whenever I buy a loaf of bread or a kilo of meat, people say it's money from the dead," says Abdo. "But I'm not making a profit."

The local NGO supporting the cemetery says international support has also been lacking. "The land needed special rehabilitation and construction. We were promised help from numerous international organizations, but none came through," says Ghassan Shehade, executive director of the Social Association in Chehim. "We only depend on the goodwill of our local donors and on our volunteers."

Fields and smugglers

More than one million Syrian refugees live in Lebanon. Many of their deaths go unrecorded, but local NGOs estimate that about 10,000 die in Lebanon each year. The vast majority of them are Sunni Muslims, whose faith prohibits cremation. In a country roughly one-third of the size of Belgium, burial space has become a pressing issue.

At the beginning of the crisis, in 2011, Syrians were buried in local cemeteries alongside the Lebanese border, but land rapidly filled up and prices rose.

Today, fees for a tomb in a Lebanese cemetery start at around $400. In cities, this price multiplies by 10, and in Beirut it can reach $10,000. This is a fee most Syrian refugees cannot afford, as few of them are able to work, and years of exile have depleted their savings. Many families are forced to bury their loved ones wherever they can.

This is what happened to 22-year-old Azzam, from Homs, when his month-old baby died last year. The family, who live in a derelict Pepsi factory on the outskirts of Sidon in southern Lebanon, could not afford medication for their firstborn child.

"The cemetery asked for $400 to take my son. I didn't have the money, so I was forced to bury him in the field," he says. "I waited until it got dark so that nobody would see me. I could have been in real trouble." It is illegal to bury someone outside an official cemetery in Lebanon.

Other refugees have resorted to sending bodies back to Syria, even though the roads aren't safe and the smugglers rarely trustworthy.

When Rajaa*, a 37-year-old refugee from the Syrian province of Idlib, lost her brother two years ago, she tried to send his body back to Damascus.

The body was lost. We don't know where it is.

"I paid a smuggler $400. He took my brother's corpse and disappeared. I called him many times, but his phone was switched off," she said. "That was it. The body was lost. We don't know where it is. Did they feed it to the dogs? Did they dump it somewhere? Did wild animals eat it? We don't know."

The right to a burial

Under the Geneva conventions, refugees have the right to be buried in individual graves and according to their religion's rituals. Yet burial space is an issue for refugees across the world, ranging from the South Sudanese in Uganda to refugees in Calais in France trying to reach the UK.

On Mediterranean coasts, new cemeteries have opened for the large number of refugees who die at sea. On the Greek island of Lesbos, a Muslim graveyard was created near the pre-existing Christian graveyard, and burial spaces for refugees have also been set aside in Italy, in Lampedusa and Tarsia.

But nowhere, perhaps, is it more difficult to allocate land for the displaced dead than in tiny Lebanon, which hosts the highest number of refugees per capita in the world.

Building more cemeteries

Adding to the challenges is the legal complexity of opening new cemeteries in Lebanon. "There is no legal or regulatory document governing the issue of cemeteries in general," says Lebanese law professor Bechara Karam. "One must compile different laws and decrees that contain a few articles on the subject."

Karima Houjair, project manager at Dar el Fatwa —the body responsible for Sunni waqf (religious property) in Lebanon — says, "Anybody can buy a piece of land and turn it into a cemetery, but before doing so he has to donate it to the waqf authorities of the municipality."

A few months ago, the site reached its maximum capacity.

In the northern region of Akkar, Nasr Alzhouri, a 58-year-old Syrian refugee from Homs, also tried to help his community to part with their loved ones in a dignified manner.

He raised $40,000 from private donors to buy a 27,000 square-ft (2,500 square-meter) piece of land near the Syrian border. He then donated it to Dar el Fatwa, and the cemetery opened in March 2017. It is now home to about 20 graves for Syrian refugees.

Another Syrian cemetery was opened by local organizations in Al Faour, in the Bekaa region, where an estimated 300,000 Syrian refugees live in harsh conditions. A few months ago, the site reached its maximum capacity of 450 graves, but the groups have a new project underway.

"We are currently working on an initiative to establish a cemetery that can accommodate 800 graves within a 37,700 square-ft (3,500 square-meter) plot of land, in central Bekaa," says Haytham Taimey, founder of the Development and Regeneration Association, an NGO helping Syrian families to find sites in local graveyards.

In their efforts to bury refugees who die in exile, these Syrian volunteers and local NGOs face not only countless legal challenges, but also the lack of interest from international donors.

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Germany
Heribert Prantl

The End Of Grief, How Modern Life Is Making Death Anonymous

MUNICHGrief is demonstrative resistance against loss. Cemeteries and funerals are ways to combat death, preserving the lives of the departed by allowing people to remember them. Death, we are told, is a part of life. But those who went earlier this month to the cemetery on All Hallows, All Souls Day, will have to ask themselves if these time-worn sentiments still hold true. There are far fewer people standing at the gravesides of their loved ones, and many more graves that have been left unmarked.

Local newspapers in the city of Münster recently complained that no funerals are allowed to take place on Saturdays, since weekday ceremonies force people to have to take time off from work to attend. What kind of customer service is that?, the papers asked. People would be much more willing to honor the dead on a Saturday because they wouldn't have to skip work. More willing?

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Germany
Deniz Aykanat

Where To Bury Terrorists, A Question From Boston To Bavaria

The German state of Bavaria now has to face the question of where and how to bury slain terrorists. Clues could come from post-coup Turkey, or from the Boston Marathon.

The sign reads "Hainler MezarliÄŸi."

There is a small patch of earth behind it, surrounded by a low wall and land covered in stones as if it were part of a quarry. Hainler MezarliÄŸi means "cemetery of traitors" in Turkish.

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Migrant Lives
Julia Pascual

The Anonymous Dead Migrants Of Calais

CALAIS — Three rows of men gather side-by-side, their heads bent down. A coffin lies on the sand, in front of them. They silently pray and place the coffin down a deep pit. Moussa Houmed was 17; he was Eritrean. He dreamed of setting foot on English soil, but ended up drowned in the retention basin of the Channel Tunnel.

A few meters from the Muslim section of the northern Calais cemetery, where some 50 men are assembled, three women are waiting to leave flowers. They come from Paris and Gex, in the Ain department, in Eastern France. "I didn't know him," one of the women admits. "My cousin who lives in the United States called and told me he was a distant cousin." Another explains that she found out about the tragedy from fellow Eritreans. "Being here, showing solidarity is the least we can do," she says.

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Germany
Benjamin Dürr

Resomation, A Third-Way Alternative To Cremation Or Burial

Another more environmentally friendly option for what to do with the dearly departed has been legalized in a few U.S. states, with several European countries now considering it as well.

BERLIN — It takes several years for a human body to decompose in soil. But it takes a resomator just three hours to do the job. Resomation, or the dissolution of a corpse in a chemical solution, is now widely seen as a faster, cheaper and more environmentally friendly alternative to cremation and burial.

The body is placed in the resomater, which resembles a cremation oven. It is then sprayed with a solution of hot water and potassium hydroxide. High temperature and air pressure speed up decomposition, and all that is left at the end is bone ash and — as explained by www.resomation.com — a sterile liquid that is returned to the water cycle. The bone ash is placed in an urn.

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blog

Buffaloes And Burials

Funeral proceedings for the Toraja people, in southern Sulawesi, include the slaughtering of a water buffalo. Four of them were killed in this case — a sign we were told that the deceased must have been from a wealthy family.

Weirdly enough, the ritual throat-slitting and skinning of the bovid was followed by a Protestant service.


blog
Ari Libsker

Israel's Housing Prices Follow People To Their Graves

In a small country like Israel, land is finite and costs continue to rise. Burials are expensive, and the rich and poor are laid to rest depending on their means.

TEL AVIV — It’s early afternoon at the Yarkon Cemetery, where a few dozen people are gathered at the entrance plaza. A small funeral procession leaves and heads to a new burial structure called Tamar.

The 300-meter-long building is still under construction. The convoy stops in front of a large wall with five rows of burial chambers. The deceased is placed in a chamber in the third floor. The gravediggers fill the niche with dirt bags, then close it with a marble plate and silicon. Later, the family can add another marble plate and a small gravestone if they wish. Beneath the gravestone a stone shelf will be fitted for a memorial candle and flowers.

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blog

A Transylvanian Burial

When you're in Transylvania, you really can't help but think about vampires. So you can imagine how it felt to suddenly see a funeral procession approach...

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