BURYING THE DEAD

Death and the Refugee Crisis

Story by Tess Haas | Graphics by Kayla Robertson | Photos by Kira Vercruyssen


The piece of plywood that props open the back door of the building serves two purposes. It lets the incense from the windowless room out, and the sounds of the busy Berlin neighborhood of Neukölln in. Inside, a sign in Arabic hangs on a large, metal door. Roughly translated it says: “This is God’s strength. God give us strength in this moment.”

On a June day, bicyclists and parents pushing strollers don’t seem to notice the white building tucked between a discount hair salon and an empty corner.

But Al-Schahbaa Islamische Bestattung, an Islamic funeral home, is the last place where many Muslim families in Berlin see their loved ones.

This is where the bodies are kept.

At 9 a.m. on a Monday, the front office is busy. Muhamed Dahawich, the man behind the desk, looks more like a pop star than a mortician. His red Nikes and silver watch stand out in between the huddles of black-clad women shuffling past him. 

Dahawich talks business. There are three bodies in the cooler today. Two of them, a woman and a child, will be buried the next morning in Berlin. The other corpse, a man, is being sent to Syria. Dahawich doesn’t know much about them, but then again, he doesn’t want to.

“This job is easier if you don’t know their stories,” he said.

Muhamed Dahawich, left, and his father, Ahmad, an Imam, look over the days paperwork. The Dahawich family opened the Islamic funeral home, Al-Schahbaa Islamische Besstatung in 2012 after they saw there were limited funeral services available for Syrian Muslims. Today they will prepare two bodies for funerals and another for a journey back to Syria. Photo by Kira Vercruyssen / @kiravphotography
Muhamed Dahawich, left, and his father, Ahmad, an Imam, look over the days paperwork. The Dahawich family opened the Islamic funeral home, Al-Schahbaa Islamische Besstatung in 2012 after they saw there were limited funeral services available for Syrian Muslims. Today they will prepare two bodies for funerals and another for a journey back to Syria. Photo by Kira Vercruyssen / @kiravphotography

Muhamed Dahawich and his father Ahmad are both Syrian immigrants from another time, before the war. Their family moved to Berlin in 2003, and Ahmad opened Al-Schahbaa Islamische Bestattung in 2012. He said at the time there were Turkish-Muslim services in Berlin, but nothing for Syrians and Muslims who spoke Arabic.

In the last two years, the Dahawichs have seen the demand for Muslim burial services double. In 2015 alone, 79,000 refugees arrived in Berlin, and the city now counts 18,000 Syrian residents, more than twice as many as in 2014. The six-person body cooler at Al-Schahbaa Islamische Bestattung is rarely empty.

“People hear we are Syrian, so Syrians come to us,” Muhamed Dahawich said.

For Muslims living in Berlin, burying loved ones has always been difficult. Only three cemeteries in Berlin have designated space for Muslims, and none are specifically for Muslims. On top of this, space is running out.

A cemetery plot costs around $1,700, and the total price tag for a funeral in Germany comes in at $3,000 to $5,600. German social services generally cover only $850 of this, depending on need. And even for those who can afford it, there is still the problem of German burial laws.

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Ahmad Dahawich prepares the body of a Syrian man for burial. The man died after a failed heart transplant. After the body is washed and prayed over, it is shrouded in white cloth and fragrant pieces of camphor are placed on top of the body. Photo by Kira Vercruyssen / @kiravphotography

In Islam, Muslims must be buried in a shroud or a simple covering rather than a coffin. Germany only started allowing this practice in the last three years. Muslims’ gravestones must also point toward Mecca. This means that only specific areas and plots are suitable. Muslims bodies must also be buried for life. In Germany, gravesite leases typically expire after 20 years and need to be renewed.

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When the refugees began arriving and dying at the doorstep of Europe, a new class of vulnerable Muslims emerged: families who had lost loved ones and were swept into a competitive burial market with limited regulations.

Badr Sharafeddin left war-torn Syria two years ago. Her son Anas had cancer most of his life and the medicine he needed was in short supply and rising in cost.  When they finally arrived in Hamburg, he got better, and then worse. The 25-year-old died a year after arriving. Right away, Sharafeddin was offered a variety of services, offering to bury her son.

She didn’t think of anything but location. She left the rest to the funeral home.

“I wanted him here,” she said.

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On a whiteboard in the back room of Al-Schahbaa Islamische Besstatung, a list of unidentifiable names is written in dry erase. Today, some are crossed off. This room is where bodies are prepared for burial. Since the start of the refugee crisis, Muhamed Dahawich said the funeral home has prepared twice as many bodies. “ This job is easier if you don’t know their stories,” he said. Photo by Kira Vercruyssen / @kiravphotography

Funeral homes step in at some refugees’ most sensitive moments but for many without income or information, they often place their trust, and their wallets, in the hands of those who speak their native language and share their religious beliefs.

Iskikali Karayel is the owner of another Islamic burial home in Berlin, Markaz Islamische Bestattungen & Ueberfuehrungen Weltweit. He says the business of death is often meant to exploit. Karayel is Turkish, but has lived in Germany most of his life. He opened Markaz in 2013, after working for a German funeral service.

“Burial services is one of the most criminal industries,” Karayel said.

He said it’s not a coincidence that many Islamic funeral homes opened at the start of the refugee crisis. These firms knew there would be people coming, and of course, people dying.

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An employee of Al-Schahbaa Islamische Besstatung places the body of a man in the six -person body cooler. It will stay there for just a few hours before being delivered to the airport. On the door of the body cooler a sign in Arabic reads, “This is God’s strength. God give us strength in this moment.” Photo by Kira Vercruyssen / @kiravphotography

He said his biggest criticism is that there are few laws and regulations monitoring burial services in Germany.

“All you need is a certificate from the courthouse and a car,” Karayel said. “It’s a catastrophe.”

Karayel said he has also seen a sharp rise in people pretending to be imams or burial specialists.

“People get very religious at the end of their lives,” he said. “People take advantage of that.”

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In 2014, German police mounted a large-scale investigation into the sale of Syrian passports, from funeral homes to smugglers, which in turn passed the documents to desperate refugees for a price tag of $5,000 or more. One funeral home accused of fraud at the time was Al-Shahbaa Islamische Bestattung, though there’s no record they ever were charged. The Dahawichs insist they had nothing to do with the misuse of the passports.

Karayel said he didn’t think the police attention did much to remedy the problem. He thinks passports are still sold frequently.

“I’d bet my store on it,” Karayel said. “People will be taken away in handcuffs and then back in business the next day.”

Karayel also said he has seen a 10 percent increase in the demand for Muslim funeral services. One reason is that fewer Muslims are choosing to send bodies back to their countries of origin due to rising costs. Shipping a body to Syria can cost almost twice as much as what a refugee has to pay in order to travel to Europe.

Issam Issa, however, is willing to shoulder the cost of repatriating his brother’s remains. His family has been in Germany for decades, but decided that the body should make the 1,800 mile trip to Syria.

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A coffin is wrapped in black plastic wrap before being delivered to the airport. Islam dictates that bodies be buried only in shrouds, but the airlines require a coffin for transport. The body will first be delivered to Lebanon and then taken by car on a dangerous journey to Syria. Photo by Kira Vercruyssen /@kiravphotography

That trip costs around $5,600 and every hour is crucial. Islam requires bodies to be interred within 24 hours, but this is nearly impossible in Germany, as even the most efficient paperwork couldn’t be processed in one day. Consequently, two days have already passed since the man died.

Delivering a body to a war-torn country is a logistical feat. Al-Schahbaa Islamische Bestattung will arrange to fly the body of Issa’s brother into Lebanon, where it will then be taken by car on a dangerous route to Latakia, Syria.

The international process for refugees who die on the journey to Europe is even more complicated. Muhamed Dahawich estimates that his firm receives a number of bodies from coastal countries like Greece and Italy every month.

As countries close borders to refugees, the numbers arriving in Europe have dwindled, according to data collected by the International Organization for Migration. But the death count didn’t slow — it skyrocketed. To date, the past six months have been the deadliest in this particular migration movement’s history.

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Giorgia Mirto, a researcher with Borderline Europe, an organization that tracks data surrounding missing and dead migrants, said the bodies of many migrants will never be found or identified.

Last May, Mirto, along with Tampara Last and Amelie Tempala, published a study on death management, called “Death at the border: from international carelessness to private concern.” In their research, Mirto and her colleagues found that while there was general concern in the countries where bodies were being discovered, there was a lack of procedure and regulations to organize and identify bodies.

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Safra Abdullah stands outside Al-Schahbaa Islamische Besstatung before helping to prepare the body of a woman for burial. Abdullah works for the funeral home. She, along with adult women from the deceased’s family, wash, powder and shroud the body together. Islam dictates that only women wash women and men wash men. Photo by Kira Vercruyssen

In Italy, where many refugees who have drowned in the Mediterranean Sea are buried, there is no centralized database for tracking DNA or burial location. So, families searching for dead or missing loved ones are at a loss.

Mirto and her colleagues call these deaths “ungrievable,” as there is no way for families to find closure. The most important thing is to stop the cause of death, Mirto said. But, until then, the system of managing the remains must be improved. In the tiny municipalities in Greece and Italy, steps are often missed when examining and collecting information of the deceased.

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“The government and the state should be responsible,” Mirto said. “We need to know who they are, and where, and how to give a response to their families.”

The women in black at Al-Schahbaa Islamische Bestattung know the body in the back room as their grandmother, mother and sister. Today is the day they will bury her. In Islam, it’s tradition for designated family members to wash and prepare their deceased relatives for burial.

The women filter into the back room. Only women can wash women, and men wash men. Taking no notice of the open door and the noise outside, they approach the female corpse on the table. When they see her, lying under a white sheet, they begin kissing her face and feet.

They are striking in all black around the white linen and the white skin of the deceased.

One of the daughters cries gently, warming her dead mother’s hands by pressing them to her cheek. The attendants, two women hired by Al-Schahbaa Islamische Bestattung to guide the process, begin to pray and run warm water into a bucket.

The women pray together as they dip cloths into the bucket. In the hour they spend they will think of a lifetime of memories. While they wash her they keep her covered in linens, one daughter braiding her wispy white hair. They do not ask where her passport is, or how much money they still owe.

When it is time for the body to be wrapped for the last time, they all say goodbye, whispering to her in Arabic and kissing her face and ears.

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