Wednesday May 31st, 2023
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The Business of Death in Egypt

While death is a thought we tend to avoid, what is unavoidable are the costs and processes associated with our grieving. Hundreds of thousands of pounds can be spent on what is deemed a respectable funeral here in Egypt. Mona Daoud discovers more...

Staff Writer

Death is an inevitable, grim reality. It is so grim that humans across centuries and cultures have come up with various sets of rituals to cope not just with the loss of someone, but with the idea of death itself. Although no one wants to think about death, let alone prepare for it, there are some realities best dealt with to avoid a hassle later when you are in grief and unable to think clearly. The reality is, it costs money to die.

Of course, if you’re brave enough to not care about social rituals, or where you’re buried, it can practically cost you nothing. However, for many, these rituals are where they find comfort, whether it's those who are grieving or those who are expecting death.

For example, my grandmother said she wants her body taken back to Alexandria to be buried in the family grave with her parents and siblings, so that their “bones are reunited.” At the age of 84, with severe nostalgia for her childhood, being protected by parents and playing with siblings, she finds immense comfort in knowing that her burial wishes will be fulfilled (and that she will be miles away from my grandfather).

This is where the business part comes in.

Wherever there is a need for something, someone will have to make a living out of it, and in this case they make a living not out of death, but out of human’s psychological need to die and grieve in certain ways.

(Almost) Free Death

The first thing you need to do when someone dies is go or send someone on your behalf, to the Health Office of your area with your ID and the ID of the deceased to declare the death. They then send over a forensic doctor to establish cause of death, determine there is no foul play, and issue you a death certificate and a burial permit without which you can’t legally bury anyone. This is all done free of charge. The problem is, the Health Office has working hours with most closing at 5pm. So if you have someone die in your home, you have to wait till they open in the morning to do anything about it.

Only in the case of accidental death, and suspicion of crime, should you call the police at any time of day or night.

Once you have the burial permit, you call a mortician to take care of things for you. There are no set prices. The mortician decides, by evaluating you, how much to charge you. This is both good and bad. It is good for poor people, for whom he would offer his services free of charge at best, or redirect them to someone else who would.

Prayers for the body are free of charge at almost all mosques and churches. Depending on where the body will be buried, some transport costs will emerge for those who can afford it, and waived for those who can’t.

Those who do not have family graves have one of two choices: they either bury the body in government charity graves, or ask friends or family who might have a grave to host the body temporarily or permanently.

For the azza, some people opt to have it at home, others opt for a hall attached to a mosque and in working class areas like Imbaba and Boulaq it can cost 200 L.E on average.

Expensive Death

There is an Egyptian saying that goes “death and home wreckage.” So not only do have to deal with death, but with the exorbitant prices of the death business.

A 25-40 metres squared burial chamber can cost between 75,000 to 150,000 L.E, depending on where it is, and whether it is sold by the government or a private cemetery.

Once the mortician meets you, and knows where the burial chamber is, he will determine how much to charge you, mostly for the van that will transport the body from where it is, to the place of prayer and on to the cemetery. He charges approximately 200 L.E for the cloth that the body is wrapped in if the deceased is of Muslim heritage, and caskets for Christians, complete with cross and pallbearers, range between 3500 L.E for basic Egyptian wooden caskets, and up to 17,000 L.E for an imported fine wood casket. This is on average. There are caskets that can go up to 35,000 L.E, if not more. Then there is 100 L.E for the washing of the body before burial, and depending on how much transport is required, about 200 L.E to 500 L.E for the van. If the body will be taken out of the city, they can charge by the thousands.

Announcing death in El Ahram newspaper is by far the most expensive part. One single line of five words costs 200 L.E including taxes. So in order to announce the person’s death, list the family, and the location of the azza and funeral, you will pay nothing less than 2000 L.E  if you’re very careful, and it can go to 40,000 L.E for an average obituary, and up to 250,000 L.E for a page.

To rent an events hall attached to a mosque or set up a tent, one night with the all necesseties from the Qur’aan reader, to the presentation of tea, coffee and water, will cost between 1,000 L.E to 3,500 L.E, depending on the provider of the space and how many seats are taken.

These are the basic expenses. Some people choose to print Qur’aan leaflets to distribute on behalf of the dead, with their names on it, under the belief that every time a person reads from it, it will benefit the deceased in their standing with God. There is also the setting up of charities in the deceased’s name, doing pilgrimage for the deceased, hiring a guard for the burial chamber, and distributing food to the poor in their name. All extra costs to help one deal with grief and fear for the souls of those who have passed.

So while death can cost nothing in Egypt, it will likely cost a lot, because we are human and we can’t accept death as it is in its raw form. We need the comfort of being buried together, even though in death there are no feelings. We need to have grand rituals for comfort, and do things on behalf of the soul, for the sheer sentimental fond memory, or an overwhelming fear of the possibilities of the world beyond, but most prominently, it is grief that will drive us.