Grave-digging a source of income for Yemenis in poverty
"I am compelled to work. I must support my family" he said with bowed head, gripping a crook in his hand.
Thousands of Yemeni men earn their living from funeral work, including grave digging, building coffins, guarding cemeteries, and sometimes washing dead people in accordance with Islamic practice.
Saleh, 24-years-old, has ten brothers. He supports them from the income he makes as a grave-digger. His father is dead and his family depends completely on him. Saleh has a secondary school certificate, yet when Yemen Times asked him about his reasons for dropping out of school, he said, "What could I do with education? Nobody can find a job without connections. I do not want to learn, and I will remain a grave-digger until Allah provides me with solutions."
One of the problems facing Saleh is his friends' mockery of his job as a grave-digger. Yemeni society considers grave-digging abhorrent, and looks down upon those who work in the cemetery.
In addition to mocking from his friends, Saleh faces other troubles while digging, as some families of the dead ask him to change the graves, and he is often obligated to re-dig a grave.
Saleh and his friends receive YR 13,000 for each grave they dig, and divide that amount between all of them. So Saleh takes away only YR 1,300 per grave. When the dead come from a poor family, Saleh makes no money at all.
When asked if he will pass on this occupation to his children, he replied optimistically that his children would be presidents or ministers, refusing the notion that his children would become grave-diggers.
Abdullah Ali, 60-years-old, has worked as a grave-digger for twenty years. He said he is happier when there's a rise in the number of bodies to bury. Abdullah receives YR 1000 per grave, or less. Grave-digging is his only way of making a living.
He said he did not want his sons to inherit this job, hoping that they find other ways to earn a livelihood.
"Oh God, quicken my death so that I may be rid of this work," he said dejectedly.
Majid, a cemetery guard, talked about the many challenges he faces at work. He said that he deals with the worst problems at night, pointing out that drunk people and the mentally ill enter the cemetery after dark and roam around.
"Nobody prevents them from doing that and I can't guard the entire cemetery alone. It's too big," he added."I only receive YR 1,500 monthly in return for my protection of the cemetery, and this amount is extremely low considering my tasks and efforts."
At Majel Al-Demah, the only ones to receive those entering the cemetery are grave-diggers, who rush to speak to anyone coming in, and begin bargaining on a grave price.
There are no set prices, but most digging teams take YR 13,000 per grave, with the amount being distributed among each digger.
The area of Majel Al-Demah is now almost full, and people are beginning to have trouble finding spaces to bury new bodies for new graves.
This cemetery is located on Khawlan Street in Sana'a. Next to the cemetery, there are black markets selling cooking-gas. Mohsin Jubran, a prominent neighborhood figure, says that gas vendors enter the cemetery to toss out bottles and garbage.
Next to the cemetery, there are public toilets. Some people, Jubran says, do not go to these toilets to avoid paying fees, and they use the cemetery.
Jubran says that the Ministry of Endowment is tasked with running Sana'a's cemeteries.
"The ministry should provide houses and salaries to grave-diggers, and refer fees paid for graves to the Endowment Ministry," he said.
"It is unbelievable that the cemetery has turned into a waste bin, and that some people enter the cemetery only to urinate and throw garbage on graves," said Jubran.
Yahya Al-Awadi, who is in charge of the cemetery endowment, has affirmed that there are no defined salaries for grave-diggers, and affirming that the guard of the cemetery receives only YR 1,500 in monthly payment.
He said "as for cemetery cleaning and the ordering of grave digging and granting of salaries for workers, it is the duty of Sana'a's officials to address."
"Not all things are in good order at the ministry, and we intend to reorder it," he added.
Perfumes, henna and other supplies are used in washing the bodies of the dead.
"We chose this job to gain rewards from Allah and money after that," said Esmaeel Ali, 30 years old, who owns a small shop for selling burial supplies.
"Thank God, my income is good because my shop is nearby a hospital," added Ali.