One month ago, a 26-year-old unemployed former film directorin Yerevan had a dilemma – how to bury his grandfather when there’s no space left in the local cemetery.
In some countries, cremation might be an answer. But in Armenia, a country with no crematoria, it’s not.
Armenia legalized cremation in 2006, but, 11 years on, tradition -- a powerful force in this ancient country, as elsewhere in the region – still gets in the way. Even when gaining a desirable plot in a cemetery means paying a bribe.
All cemeteries in Armenia are government-owned, and, under the law, citizens can receive a 2.5-square-meter (27-square-feet) plot in the cemetery closest to their residence without paying a fee. But space in Yerevan, the Armenian capital, is running low.
Land surveys of Yerevan’s cemeteries haven not been updated since 2008, but, the Yerevan municipal administration states that over half of the city’s 21cemeteries are now partly closed.
Funerals and burials are an elaborate affair in Armenia, and an obligation that reflects on a family’s honor.
For that reason, when the unemployed grandson, a resident of the Yerevan district of Avan, learned that a cemetery a few kilometers away from his family home had an 18-square-meter (194-square-feet) plot available for $2,000, he jumped at the chance. To get the space, his family eventually paid a bribe of $1,500; an amount nearly four times the size of the average monthly salary in Armenia.
“There was no time for an extensive search, and the proposed [alternative, free-of-charge] places were either in the suburbs or in places which were difficult to reach or rocky,” explains the man, who asked not to be identified. “Aside from that, we wanted a nearby location so that our grandmother could visit the grave frequently.”
While he appreciates the idea of cremation, the procedure would not have been the appropriate option for his family, he says.
A Law on Cremation, but No Crematorium
Even today, Vladimir Badalyan, Armenia’s ambassador to Turkmenistan, recalls how, as an MP more than 11 years ago, the idea came to mind to propose a bill on cremation.
After walking through several of the country’s cemeteries, he says, it became plain that “the overload in many cemeteries, especially in Yerevan, was critical.”
“The graves had spread out from their former boundaries and the cemeteries were invading the area of residential buildings, hospitals, and so on. Aside from that, the cemeteries were in grave condition; they were completely covered” by overgrown greenery.
Crematoria, Ambassador Badalyan continues, would replace “the vast graveyards . . .with small and neatmemorial plates.
“It would be easier to maintain and Armenians living abroad would be sure that, then, the graves of their loved ones and relatives would be safe from natural disasters, such as landslides.”
Ambassador Badalyan’s bill was adopted in 2006 (“On Funerals, Cemeteries and Crematoria”), complete with specifications on the use of a crematorium and even on the size of the plates that cover the ash capsules.
But, he believes, Armenia’s cemeteries have not improved. Many of the law’s clauses, he says, are now just useless paragraphs.
Cremation as a Way to Save Space
Even so, cremation’s space-saving advantages are hard to dispute.
Currently, the government allots Armenian citizens 2.5 square meters (27 square feet) of free-of-charge land for burying one person. A family can receive 12 square meters (129 square feet), with room for up to six graves.
By contrast, the area allotted for burying an ash capsule is five times smaller -- half a square meter (or 5.4 square feet). Relatives can also take the ashes home or place them in a memorial wall.
A comparison of Yerevan’s Silikyan cemetery, one of the city’s largest, and a memorial wall at France’s Père Lachaise cemetery, the largest in Paris, shows the difference in space between the two options:
Photo credits: Wikipedia and Suren Manvelyan/ YEREVAN city magazine
Yerevan’s Funeral Bureau
Yet the organization charged with managing Yerevan’s 21 public cemeteries asserts that the city’s graveyards do not lack space. The territories account for 2.5 percent of the capital’s total land area, according to the official 2008 figures, the latest available.
Despite the city government’s information about closures, Eva Ohanyan, counsel for The Special Community Service, commonly called “the Funeral Bureau,” maintains that ten of the city’s cemeteries “are open for expansion.”
“The issue is that people refuse to bury their relatives in cemeteries that are not near their houses. Also, they usually don’t accept the offered land as there are no roads for cars to the spots.”
Take a tour of Yerevan’s 21 cemeteries. Click on their names for details.
Claims of corruption to receive one of these plots are not new. In 2008, then Prime Minister Tigran Sargsyan complained publicly about the practice, but nothing changed.
Source of the video: Public TV Company of Armenia’s “Hraparakum” program
Ohanyan, though, rejects widespread reports of cemetery corruption. Those who apply to The Special Community Service for a cemetery plot receive one for free, she insists.
Yet she does concede one point -- a crematorium would preserve 60 percent of the territory still available for use in Yerevan’s cemeteries, she estimates.
But, still, the city has no crematorium. In fact, to hear Ohanyan tell it, no one has ever expressed to her organization an interest in cremation.
Conflict over Cremation
That’s likely no surprise to 29-year-old ethnographer Smbat Hakobyan, a junior researcher at the Academy of Sciences who studies contemporary funeral rituals throughout the world.
Even when confronted with an ash capsule, Armenians have been known to stick to tradition, he says.
“I know cases when an Armenian living abroad was cremated for easy transportation [to Armenia]. However, later in Armenia, the ash capsule was placed inside a coffin and buried that way,” Hakobyan recounts.
Most of the 20-some people interviewed by Chai Khana in the streets of Yerevan shared the view that traditional burials are the more appropriate way to go.
The political strength of the views against cremation is plain. In 2015, Parliamentary Speaker Galust Sahakyan urged MPs to approve government construction of crematoria, but stressed that “no one is going to take steps opposed to Armenians’ national traditions and interests."
National traditions mean, as well, the roughly 1,700-year-old Armenian Apostolic Church; another significant reason for the skepticism about cremation, according to the ethnographer Hakobyan.
In keeping with the views of other Orthodox denominations, the Armenian Apostolic Church, seen as a safeguard of Armenian cultural identity, believes cremation contradicts Christianity’s emphasis on the value of human life and the eventual resurrection of believers.
The Church, though, has no official view on cremation, and its bishops have never discussed the question. Many priests, however, seem not to support the practice.
The Reverend Father Vahram Melikyan, spokesperson for the Mother See of Etchmiadzin, the Church administration, elaborates that cremation is not in line with Armenians’ mentality since the Armenian Church already has a centuries-old burial ceremony.
“During the funeral ceremony the priest anoints the grave by putting a cross mark on the soil. This signifies our wish that the grave shall stay untouched until the second coming of Christ, when believers will be resurrected,” he says. Cremation’s destruction of a person’s bones, from which, according to the Bible’s Book of Ezekiel, the resurrection will begin, hinders that process, he believes.
No Church sacrament or ceremony exists for burying or entombing ash after a cremation. Yet, Father Vahram adds, this does not mean that a prayer or requiem service cannot be performed.
Rather than cremation, though, he echoes a common suggestion for how to handle the shortage of cemetery plots -- stop the construction of mausoleums and huge memorials, and allocate smaller plots for burials.
That might be easier said than done, however.
Should Cemeteries Change?
The law doesn’t regulate the size of Armenian cemeteries’ mausoleums and memorials, and both are key to the country’s funeral traditions.
“[A] cemetery is a place where social classes are visible,” notes ethnographer Hakobyan. “It’s common for Armenians to show off their social status by installing huge gravestones, mausoleums and statues.”
A walk through Yerevan’s Kentronakan (also knows as Tokhmakh) Cemetery illustrates the problem.
The risk of potential landslides adds to the problem. Many of Yerevan’s cemeteries are in landslide zones; a factor not taken into consideration in Soviet times, when planning for the graveyards took place. An ongoing landslide at one of the city’s main cemeteries, Arin-Berd, has destroyed many graves.
Graves damaged from the landslide in Yerevan’s Arin-Berd Cemetery, shown in 2013.
Photo by Arthur Lumen Gevorgyan/ Yerevan City Magazine
On the other hand Yerevan’s cemeteries, overcrowded and stuffed with monuments, sprawl outward, and residential buildings and graveyards can become close neighbors.
The law stipulates a distance of not less than 300 meters (984 feet) between cemeteries or crematoria and schools, kindergartens, residential buildings and other public areas.
But at the Avan Cemetery, where the former film director wanted to bury his grandfather, the distance to a children’s playground is just 30-40 meters (98-131 feet), ten times less than the law allows.
The law also stipulates that cemeteries and crematoria be enclosed by a wall or fence. But on Yerevan’s Moldovakan Street, in its eastern Nor Nork district, residents of one former student dormitory complain that no such boundary separates them from the neighborhood cemetery.
“The cemetery and the playground are too close to each other, and the local children often go there and play different games,” comments one of the residents, Hasmik Vardanyan, 50. “There is neither a wall nor a fence.”
Twenty-some years ago, the cemetery used to be a small park with benches, recalls one 90-year-old woman, who identified herself as Tanya.
Could cremation prevent the loss of other city parks?
For one young man, the notion that Armenians might agree to a crematorium is not so far-fetched.
The Case for Cremation
Edgar Kaloyan, a 21-year-old student in his second to last year of study at Yerevan State Medical University, believes cremation is both the most sanitary and space-conscious way to dispose of a corpse. While tradition-bound Armenia can sometimes be slow to accept change, he says, sooner or later, he predicts, the change to cremation will come as well.
Do you agree or disagree with cremation? Take Chai Khana’s informal poll and let us know: