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Economic meltdown hits Lebanese funeral industry

With the economy in tatters, many Lebanese are struggling to afford basic funeral services.

The death of a relative has become a heavy financial burden for Lebanese citizens. According to UN estimates, more than 55% of Lebanon's population is now living below the poverty line.

The cost of funeral services in Lebanon varies depending on the religious community. The service fees are lower for Muslims than for Christians and Druze, who have to buy a coffin, funeral wreaths and clothes for the deceased, while Muslims are buried wrapped in shrouds.

“The cheapest funeral and burial cost at least $600,” said Fadi Michel al-Zaned, who owns a burial services company, told Al-Monitor.

He added, “The prices have obviously gone up and continue to do so. … Most of the raw materials used in the manufacturing of coffins are sold in dollars. The cheapest wooden coffin … costs $65. It can reach $1,000 depending on the quality of the wood and the country from which it is imported.” He noted that there is also the casket lining to consider.

Zaned explained that with fuel so expensive and hard to get, the cost of transporting dead bodies is at least 300,000 Lebanese pounds for areas not far from Beirut. Costs rise even more for areas further away.

“Amid the COVID-19 pandemic and economic situation in Lebanon, … deaths now announced in text messages via WhatsApp or Facebook. The family of the deceased only prints 30 death notices instead of 200 for 200,000 Lebanese pounds,” he said.

It is no longer considered shameful not to hold a formal funeral and serve food after the burial due to the financial situation and COVID-19 restrictions. Zaned said that “many families are no longer getting wreaths and can only afford to offer coffee and water.”

“Some ask me if they can pay the fees in installments and most of them pay in the local currency, which I calculate depending on the market rate,” he said. “To be honest, I have not suffered any losses because of the crises. This business does not stop.”

George Deabis, the owner of another burial services in the Hazmieh suburb of Beirut, is forced to accept payments in installments by the family of the deceased. He told Al-Monitor, “There is no other solution; it is a humanitarian issue.”

The price of the coffin at his funeral home is not less than 2.5 million Lebanese pounds (about $150) and can reach 12 million Lebanese pounds ($780).

He noted, “The majority of families are reducing expenses for they see as luxuries now, such as the funeral reception for Christians and Druze, … even though it was central to Lebanese traditions.”

He added, “As for the death notice, it is no longer important either. If a family decides to print them, they will have to pay at least 200,000 Lebanese pounds.”

He said of funeral wreaths, “Only well-off families are sending them to the church or funeral home. Most of the flowers are imported and in winter the price rises. The cheapest wreath costs 400,000 Lebanese pounds.”

Elias Germanos, who supervises a cemetery for the Maronite community in Beirut, told Al-Monitor, “As for the grave, payment is made to the archdiocese and can reach $5,000. For an already used grave of someone who died a long time ago and does not have a family, the cost is about $2,000. A temporary grave, which means that after five years, the bones of the deceased are thrown put in an ossuary to allow another person to be buried in its place, costs $200.”

Muhammad Wahbi, an official in a funeral association affiliated with the Islamic Endowments, told Al-Monitor, “Muslims in Beirut will pay approximately $2,000, not counting the reception and the funeral parlors, which cost another $2,000.”

He added, “The price includes the washing, shrouding and transportation. Sometimes, transportation is free of charge, depending on the family's financial situation. … Burial in an old grave that belongs to the family can cost between $500 and $700 because prices vary from one property to another.”

In the villages, the situation is very different. Sheikh Jamal Bashasha, a Muslim cleric from the village of Barja in Iqlim al-Kharroub, said that in his area, “the funeral and burial cost is not nearly as burdensome for families as in the cities.”

He said, “This is because the graves are not sold. Rather, land is designated for the burial of the deceased villagers or strangers and the body is transported in the municipal cars. As for the condolences, they are offered at the family house. So the cost is limited to food and coffee, which the family or neighbors pay for.”

He added, “We don't even need notices in the villages. We usually announce the death from the minarets of mosques and the neighbors prepare food for the family of the deceased.”

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