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Funeral workers at Tehran's vast cemetery busy with business of burial

Posted: Friday, February 01, 2002

BEHESHT-E-ZAHRA, Iran (AP) -- After his first day working at his traditional profession, Safar Azadinejad had nightmares and lost his appetite.

Most people would probably say that's understandable -- anyone could get squeamish washing a corpse before burial.

Azadinejad is now a veteran of thousands of funerals. At 62, he's been a bodywasher for 28 years and he eats and sleeps fine these days. Still, he wonders whether bodywashers and other funerary workers will ever shake the stigma associated with their jobs.

''The son of a colleague was looking for a bride a few years back,'' he said. ''The family of a prospective bride opposed the marriage because the father was a (bodywasher).''

A time-honored ritual in this Islamic state, washing the bodies of the deceased before they are placed in a shroud and buried is taught in Islam's holy book, the Quran, and considered an obligation in religious law.

But being in the burial business in Iran can invite scorn. Many Iranians believe that marrying funeral professionals like undertakers and bodywashers brings bad luck.

Those who work at the sprawling Behesht-e-Zahra cemetery, about six miles south of the Iranian capital of Tehran, do so because they have no other choice.

''I recite verses and sacred names for the dead because I have no other job. I would give this up if I got a chance of employment somewhere else,'' said Davoud Malmir, 30, who is what's called a talqin reciter.

Unlike undertakers in the West, Tehran's bodywashers do their work in public.

The dead are taken to a large building on the cemetery grounds, where more than 50 male and female bodywashers -- working in separate halls wearing boots and gloves -- cleanse the dead.

Relatives can watch from behind glass windows as bodies are placed on stone platforms for washing. Some break into tears. Others avoid the hall altogether.

Two people wash each body with a mix of water and camphor perfume before placing it in a large white shroud, Azadinejad said. They then place the body in a coffin for carrying to the burial site.

Relatives pray over the shrouded body before sprinkling it with rose water and adding flowers. They then carry the coffin on their shoulders to the grave for burial while repeating the basic Muslim profession: ''There is no god but God.''

Relatives then take the shrouded body out of the coffin and place it in a grave with the face directed to Saudi Arabia'a Mecca, Islam's holiest city.

Families spend $120 to buy a plot in the cemetery, which is dug deep enough to hold two bodies because of limited space and the cost of burial.

Before the body is covered with stones and soil, a man -- usually a cleric -- recites Quranic verses and the name of Islam's prophet Muhammad and those of the 12 Shiite imams.

The cemetery, covering about 1,000 acres, spreads like a small city from a vast shrine where the architect of Iran's 1979 Islamic revolution, Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, is buried.

The graves are marked by low marble gravestones, or small stone mausoleums carved with names and dates of birth and death. Some graves have a picture of the deceased printed on metal or protected under glass.

Esmaeil Daneshpajouh, an official with the cemetery, said Behesht-e-Zahra opened in 1970 as a more orderly alternative to the many smaller cemeteries scattered through various districts of Tehran.

Behesht-e-Zahra is the place where Khomeini made his first address to the nation on Feb. 1, 1979, after returning home from 15 years of exile. He chose the cemetery to honor those who died in the 1979 revolution.

The cemetery was expanded in 1988 after it filled up following the 1980-88 Iran-Iraq war, in which 30,000 soldiers from Tehran died.

Reza Qasemi began working at the cemetery soon after. He has worked as a bodywasher -- or morde shoor -- for 12 years and says he's tired of the job because he never gets a vacation.

''I wish people would not die on Friday (the Muslim sabbath), so that (we could) have our holiday like other people,'' the 40-year-old Qasemi said with a smile. ''But we don't.''

End Advance



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