High cost of death haunts Egyptians

The high cost of living in Egypt has extended to dying, and burial has gotten too expensive for the poor.

al-monitor People visit a cemetery in Cairo, Egypt, March 9, 2013. Photo by Hong Wu/Getty Images.

Apr 24, 2019

The ever-increasing cost of living in Egypt since the country’s Central Bank floated the currency in 2016 has started taking its toll on death itself.

In the last few years, burial has become a lucrative business in Egypt. Local jokes to the effect that even death has become too expensive for Egyptians can be heard on social media and comedy shows.

But the problem is no laughing matter. The price of a tomb of 60 square meters (645.8 square feet) may reach as high as 500,000 Egyptian pounds ($29,070), equivalent to an apartment of 100 square meters (1,076.39 square feet) in a working-class district in Cairo.

“If you think finding an affordable apartment is tough, I dare say finding a grave for a decent burial has become even tougher,” Hajj Islam, head of the Cairo-based Nour al-Rahman Company for Graveyards, told Al-Monitor.

Hajj Islam, who has been in the cemetery construction business for more than 30 years, said that ever since the currency float, many buyers are asking to pay for their graves in installments.

“Prior to the pound flotation, a 25-square-meter tomb [82-square-foot] in a new cemetery sold for around 20,000 pounds ($1,170). Now the price has more than doubled, reaching 55,000 pounds ($3,210). That price is only for cash sales. An extra 10,000 pounds ($581) is added for an 18-month installment plan,” he said.

The country’s rich heritage of burial and death rituals dates back to the ancient Egyptians, who built far more temples and tombs than palaces. Contemporary graves are also more elaborate than those in many other countries, with large tombs divided into spaces for men and women.

“Our company sells 40-square-meter (430-square-f00t) and 60-square-meter (646-square-foot) tombs for 135,000 ($7,850) and 145,000 ($8,430) pounds in cash, respectively,” Hajj Islam said.

Burial sites in Madinet El-Salam, 28 km east of Cairo, are cheap compared with graveyards located in Fayyoum and 6th of October, which are closer to Cairo, he said.

”The price of a grave in an old cemetery in Fatimid Cairo may reach as high as 500,000 pounds. In New Cairo, prices of 25-square-meter [82-square-foot] tomb starts at 150,000. As any other business, the whole matter is based on supply and demand,” Hajj Islam said.

Egypt’s mortality rate was 5.7% in 2017, according to the state-run Central Agency for Public Mobilization and Statistics, and 547,000 Egyptians were buried that year.

Egypt is the most populous Arab country, with a population of 98.5 million as of April 2019.

To boost supply, the state-run New Urban Communities Authority put 1,017 new graves up for sale on March 28 at a total price of 90,000 pounds ($5,230) per tomb.

“This is not sufficient. The demand for graveyards has been on the rise over the past 20 years, especially in the Nile Delta governorates. The cemeteries in some governorates like Daqahliya and Gharbia are overcrowded. There are no licensed plots of land to build new graveyards there,” construction company owner Ahmed Shaaban told Al-Monitor.

“The currency float has more than doubled the construction costs. The prices of cement, steel rebar, bricks and other materials have shot up since November 2016,” he said.

The Egyptian authorities embarked on a raft of economic reforms after signing a $12 billion loan agreement with the International Monetary Fund in November 2016.

“New cemeteries have been built outside Cairo and Giza near Fayyoum governorate. Rising demand is scaling up prices of graves nationwide, especially in Cairo and Giza," Shaaban said, calling for new plots of land for graveyards, especially in the Nile Delta.

“Some villagers in the Nile Delta governorate of Dakahlia have added stories to the existing graves,” Shaaban said.

However, multi-story burial is unlawful in Islam, according to a fatwa issued by the Islamic Research Academy of Al-Azhar, the world’s highest seat of Sunni Muslim learning, two years ago. Abdullah El-Naggar, a member of the Islamic Research Academy, held that the multi-story graves are forbidden by sharia, stating, “The burial must be underground.”

Undertaker Hajj Subhi of Bab El-Wazir Cemetery in Fatimid Cairo told Al-Monitor that he had not heard of such fatwa.

“As in ancient tombs, we bury the bodies in rooms inside the grave, and not in the soil. A man can stand inside these rooms. We have to clean the ground inside the tomb at least every three months by putting the bones aside,” Hajj Subhi said.

Answering a question what happens to the poor who cannot afford graves, Subhi pointed to charity cemeteries, saying, “We have an old saying that graves never reject a dead body.”

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