Some of the more traditional elements of the societies of the South Caucasus call for lavish funerals and other expensive rituals when dealing with the passing of a loved one.
The unstable economic situation in Georgia, Armenia and Azerbaijan makes dying an expensive affair; some may even joke that they are “afraid of dying”, worrying that their funeral costs would be too much for their relatives.
“On such a pension, you can’t even make it to the grave!”
Margarita Harutyunyan is retired. She lost her husband two months ago. On the table in the living room of her home stands a picture of her recently deceased husband, a bowl of carnations. Now Margarita lives alone.
”My husband died of cancer. The last days of his life, I was just thinking about where to find the money for the funeral. If it were not for the help of the children, I would not have been able to bury him in a dignified manner…”, says Margarita, looking at her husband’s portrait.
Margarita says that she and her husband received 97,000 Armenian drams per month (about $200) for their pension. She says that in Armenia, a person’s body can barely get to the grave on such money.
56-year-old Giorgi Bichikashvili is the father of a family and has been unemployed for a year and a half. For 20 years he worked in the construction industry and suddenly lost his job. He is still too young to receive a pension, but he thinks he is considered too old to find work in Georgia.
Giorgi’s mother passed away two months ago. This did not come as a surprise for the family, since she had not been out of bed for a month. Everyone understood that it was necessary to prepare for the funeral in advance, but there was no money ready on hand.
“Knowing today’s prices, I was even afraid to think about how much the funeral would cost?! How many people will come to the wake? After all, everything must be organized, as it should be. Only thanks to the children, relatives and friends, we managed to adequately send my mother on her last path… If it were not for them, my wife and I would have to borrow or get money on credit…”, he said.
In Azerbaijan, Aida Elekberova lost her father a year ago. Aida works as a manager in a prestigious company and earns a good salary. But nothing could have prepared her for the expenses she incurred as a result of her father’s passing.
“The funeral, and all the rites that should be observed in the first forty days cost $5,000, without a tombstone…”, says Aida. “I had some money saved up, I did not have to borrow money, but if I were a person with an unstable salary, I would have had a hard time.”
“Prestigious” and “unprestigious” cemetery plots
“My husband was buried in the ‘family grave’, where my husband’s parents are buried. Without this…for a new place in the cemetery, we would have had to pay 3000 dollars… “, says Margarita.
Since 2006, in Armenia, the law on the organization of funerals and exploitation of cemeteries and crematoria provides for 2.5 square meters per person for free, and for a family cemetery of 12.5 square meters. But according to local residents, the relevant structures often take advantage of the fact that there are not enough land plots, and they illegally earn money on this. Prices depend on the grave site in the cemetery – from 500-600 to 3-4 thousand US dollars per plot.
Prices are different in Tbilisi. Graves are divided into zones, and prices are set by the state. As it turned out, ‘good plots’ can cost up to 2,000 lari ($835), and for a “less prestigious plot” one can pay a mere 50 lari ($20).
Aida said that she searched for a ‘prestigious’ plot for her father’s grave site.
“The cheapest plots were in less prestigious cemeteries and cost from 300 to 2,000 dollars. And in the ‘prestigious’ cemeteries there were plots that cost up to $5,000”.
However, the legislation of the Republic of Azerbaijan has not established a maximum price for grave plots, because every citizen has the right to bury their loved ones for free on specific plots of land.
Economist Rovshan Agayev says that cemeteries by law cannot charge.
“Every citizen has the right to bury his loved one where they please, regardless of where the deceased was registered [in the city]. If citizens are required to pay a fee for a plot in the cemetery, it is just a bribe”, he said.
However, Aida says they paid people who introduced themselves as the administration of the cemetery and, of course, did not give them any receipt.
In the regions of Azerbaijan, no money is required for graves.
Since 2015, the country has been preparing a bill on the operation of cemeteries, which will clearly regulate this issue. Under the new project, land in Baku cemeteries will be paid (280 manat per plot). But the bill has not yet been adopted.
Holding a Wake
Large, lavish funerals and the meals that come after them are part of life in the South Caucasus. In Azerbaijan, people generally refrain from placing pork, alcohol and other ‘harram’ (forbidden) food items on the table. But in the times of the “new oil boom” it became fashionable to serve expensive packets of cigarettes and exotic fruits on the table. It went so far that a couple of years ago, authorities discussed the idea of banning “overly-lavish funerals”.
No one wants to lag behind, and so even if one’s financial situation does not allow for a lavish funeral, everyone wants to set a table worthy of the deceased’s memory. And here the problems begin. After all, the desire to do everything adequately may not coincide with one’s financial reality.
If during the Soviet era it was decided to hold a wake at home, today many prefer to hold these events in so-called mourning halls. In Georgia and in Armenia there are special halls and places set up for this exact purpose – this, by the way, is a very profitable business.
In Azerbaijan, there are the so-called “Kheyir-sher Evi”, which means “house for celebrations and wake-ups”ş
Otherwise, wakes are often held in the courtyard of a building, where separate tents for males and females are erected. Men tell stories of the deceased in one tent, while women mourn in the other.
Prices for tents are also different. It depends both on the function and size, as well as on the location of the mourning. In the center of Baku, prices are twice as high as on the outskirts, and three times, four times as much as in the regions.
For example, in Baku an ordinary tent for 100-150 persons starts at 300 manat (150 dollars). A tent for the same number of people, with tea service, dishwasher and waiters costs 500-600 manat (250-300 dollars). And when some meals are added to the service, the price can reach 1800 manats (900 dollars).
Margarita Harutyunyan says she needed to rent a mourning hall because her apartment is too small and she had too many relatives, friends and acquaintances to host.
“For the funeral hall we paid 120 thousand drams, this is $250. Recently, there was an opportunity to leave the deceased at the funeral parlor, and from there to see them off to the ‘last path’, to the cemetery”, she says.
The tombstone is the lion’s share of costs
In all three countries the most significant part of the costs is the tombstone and coffin. In Azerbaijan, the Muslim faith requires a burial without a coffin, and so many do not order the coffin but instead wrap the body of the deceased in an expensive carpet. A tombstone, which should be ready by the anniversary of the death of the departed, costs in between 1,000 – 20,000 US dollars.
In Armenia, the price of tombstones starts from 300 dollars and can reach 5 thousand. The price of coffins is in the range of 50 dollars to five thousand dollars.
In Georgia, the price of a tombstone starts from $100, but more expensive options are also available.
Gevorg Karapetyan, the owner of a ritual services complex in Yerevan, says that his store provides big discounts for the poor relatives of the deceased. But many do not want to save anything and try to send off their loved ones in style.
“I have one friend who has a lot of debt, but when his father died, instead of a simple coffin, he bought an ornate one, ordered an expensive hearse, and took a precious piece of land in the cemetery”, Gevorg says.
Gevorg notes that many shops selling coffins provide ritual services: car rental, house decoration, wreaths, design and tomb stones.
In Georgia, many even joke that a funeral home is the most profitable of businesses. In each micro-district of Tbilisi you can see a funeral services bureau willing to organize the entire event down to the last detail. But to pay them off, people often have to create installment plans and loans that can be paid off within a year’s time.
Aida said that for her it was a problem that there are no funeral bureaus in Baku who could organize all this.
“In one place I was offered a tent and a crockery. In the other – the ablution of the deceased, wrapping in a shroud and the holding of the ritual ceremony. In the third, cooks were offered, in the fourth – a tombstone”.
The ancient profession of “mourners” for hire
In Georgia and in Azerbaijan it used to be fashionable to order a professional “mourner” that would help make people cry with their heartbreaking sobs.
The mourners sang of youth, dignity, the honorary life of the deceased with poems and sad songs, thereby causing sympathy and yearning for the audience. Now, this ancient custom is for the most part out of fashion….