June 17, 2021
For three or five days, the smell of flowers did not come, the sound of nightingales did not come…”
The musician plays this piece so sadly on his ney, tears well up in the eyes of all those around him, dressed in black and fresh from having buried their loved ones in the cold ground.
But the song does not continue further. This short segment was just an advertisement of his work. He packs up his instrument and distributes business cards among the mourners, inviting them to contact him for their ceremonies.
This is Behesht-e Zahra, the largest cemetery in the Iranian capital. Today it is playing host to quite unprecedented crowds: a level of congestion that is proving quite prosperous to many in this city of the dead.
Even though a vast banner displayed at Behesht-e Zahra Cemetery bans the use of musical instruments within its gates, plenty of ney – traditional Iranian flute – players still use the site as a place to ply their talents.
“Sir, if I want you to come and play for our ceremony on Monday, how much will you charge?”
On being asked this, the ney player immediately pats down his clothes, takes a card out of his pocket and says: “Four hundred thousand tomans [$US14.50] for 15 minutes. Call if you want.”
Musicians, however, are not the only ones doing good business among the graves. The surge in burials due to Covid-19 has led to an increase in commercial activity at cemeteries all over Iran, but perhaps especially in Behesht-e Zahra, the biggest cemetery in Tehran.
Apart from the numerous florists’ stalls are lined up just a stone’s throw away from the main shrine, people can buy flowers, prayers, and vases to decorate the graves of their loved ones from any number of casual sellers fringing the pathways.
Quran reciters, eulogists and flutists also make their way around the freshly-dug graves to offer sorrowful laments, play a haunting tune on the ney or recite the Quranic Surahs of Yasin and al-Rahman. Others with workshops not far from the cemetery offer made-to-order gravestones to passersby, showing them recent samples of their creations on their mobile phones. Those in need can pay a deposit right then and there via their handheld point-of-sale card readers.
“The outbreak of coronavirus has changed the way ceremonies are held,” said Mina, who recently lost her grandfather and is preparing with difficulty for the 40th night of mourning. “Before this, no-one cared about ceremonies in Behesht-e Zahra.
“Relatives usually only came here on the 40th day, and then reserved a mosque or a hall to host the guests. But now all the ceremonies have to be held around the grave. Because of this, business has been good in Behesht-e Zahra; that is, both the Behesht-e-Zahra administrators benefits and the people who take orders at the graveside.”
The Behesht-e Zahra Organization makes an income from renting out chairs and benches, as well as speaker systems, water and canopies to shield mourners from the sun. An employee tells me it turns a good profit from doing so, “especially at this time, what ceremonies are held from A to Z next to the graves of the deceased.”
Of the ceremony to mark the 40th day since her grandfather’s passing, Mina says: “Because it’s only being held here due to corona, my father didn’t want to invite ordinary eulogists. I had the details of several on Instagram, so I called one of them.
“He asked me for the grave number – so as to know whether it was in the older section, which more expensive, and to make sure we could afford his heavy fees. After we convinced him, he said the price of his work was 1.3 million tomans [$54], 1.7 million [$70] if he used the ney.
“The second one, after taking down the grave number and information, said his fee would be three to six million tomans [$124-248] – but that if anyone felt this was too much he could reduce it a bit. I thanked him, and my father and I came to the conclusion that we should use the ordinary 300- to 400-thousand toman [$12-16.50] mourners of Behesht-e Zahra.”
A ragged young man holding a Quran sits close by some of the grieving families, and begins to recite the Surahs Yasin and al-Rahman. Then he recites al-Fatiha, the first Surah of the Quran, without prompting and begins to solicit cash from the bereaved onlookers. In response to those who don’t have any change on them, he whips out a card machine: “I take card too. God bless you!”
Mostafa is another employee of the Behesht-e Zahra Organization, who works to clear parts of the cemetery complex. “Our salaries don’t fully cover the high cost of living,” he says. “On the expensive plots, many of the wealthy families give me a monthly stipend to wash down their loved ones’ gravestones every day and make a wreath of flowers. I get this from several people ]on a monthly basis; depending on their generosity they pay 100,000 to 500,000 tomans [$4-20]. I take a bagful of flowers down every day and pour a handful onto each of the graves.”
Some of Behesht-e Zahra merchants rely on even simpler methods, more within reach of the less well-off visitors. Sohrab, who lost his father several months ago, recalls: “A few days ago while we were sat here as a family, a 15- or 16-year-old boy came by with bags of wheat in his hands to feed the birds.
“As he approached my father’s grave, he poured a few grains of wheat onto the grave and waited to see if anyone would greet him. When my brother gave him a 10,000-toman [$0.40] banknote, he dropped a whole handful of wheat onto the grave. I’m sure he makes at least 150,000 to 200,000 tomans a day ($6-8) by doing this.”