Grave Corruption in Armenian Capital
|Publisher||Institute for War and Peace Reporting|
|Publication Date||3 June 2011|
|Cite as||Institute for War and Peace Reporting, Grave Corruption in Armenian Capital, 3 June 2011, available at: http://www.refworld.org/docid/4deded562.html [accessed 19 June 2013]|
Yerevan is running out of burial sites, according to the authorities in the Armenian capital, who say they lack the money they need to open new cemeteries.
The shortage of plots has generated a new form of corruption, where officials are accused of demanding payment for new graves and allowing the owners of family plots to sell off the space at high prices.
"To build a new cemetery in the capital, we would need to have a piece of land of 46.5 hectares, which we don't currently possess," said Razmik Harutyunyan, an engineer with the municipal public services department.
Yerevan has 21 cemeteries, 14 of which are already full, and the remaining seven have limited space. The authorities say the last available spaces will be used up by 2020 at the latest. Often the only spaces left are in family plots.
Bereaved families have to pay for a burial space, although by law they are supposed to receive two-and-a-half square metres free of charge as an individual plot, or 12.5 square metres for a family grave.
"When my grandfather died three years ago, I had to pay a large sum to a man who then helped me buy a plot in one of the Yerevan cemeteries and fill in the relevant documents," local resident Karapet Davtyan said, adding that he paid over 700 US dollars to a cemetery worker to guarantee a site.
Statistics show that between 550 and 600 people die in Yerevan every month, so those who control the allocation cemetery plots stand to make substantial illicit sums out of the shortage.
Officials as senior as Prime Minister Tigran Sargsyan have raised concerns over illicit dealing in grave sites. Three years ago, he told a government meeting, "I imagine you have all faced this problem and will be aware that corruption is simply flourishing. If you want to receive a better location for your grave, you can do so for money. There are no bounds to this cynical practice."
Harutyunyan warned against demonising private owners of graves who decide to sell up.
"We often receive letters from people who are being asked for big money for a plot. Whenever we get these letters, we investigate immediately, and it often turns out that the descendants of someone who bought a large cemetery plot and was buried there several decades ago have decided to divide it up and sell it," he said.
Anna Avetyan has put the burial plots of her grandparents up for sale. She is asking 3,000 US dollars but is prepared to negotiate.
"My aunt lives in the United States. I once asked her for money, and she suggested selling the plots where her parents are buried. At first I was in shock, and then I began to look for buyers," she said.
The trade can cause unpleasant surprises, such when Angela Sargsyan visited her father's grave in the central cemetery, only to find that an unknown woman had been buried right next to him.
"I went immediately to the burials office [and] demanded an explanation, and [the head] just started to shout at me. Then I decided to scare her by saying I'd go to court, so she asked me not to appeal and said the matter would be resolved," she said.
A week later, Sargsyan received a phone call saying things had indeed been "resolved".
"They had dug up the woman's body at night and buried her somewhere else," she said.
Sargsyan subsequently discovered the reason for the mystery burial – her family plot had been sold, illegally and without her knowledge, to someone else for 7,000 dollars.
Wealthy buyers have driven up the price of graves. Harutyunyan said a 400 square metre plot at the Shahumyan cemetery had gone for 1.5 million dollars.
Experts agree that new cemeteries are needed but worry that they will consume too much space. In 2008, the government decided to promote the construction of crematoria. Land has already been allocated in Yerevan's Ajapnyak district, but there are no funds to build the crematorium planned there, which has been costed at over 12 million dollars.
Harutyunyan says the crematorium will be worth it in the long run because of the reduction in land needed for new cemeteries.
Galust Nanyan is a freelance journalist in Armenia.