The Macabre Life of a Grave Digger
Mahmoud Ahmed, Arab News Staff
Dug up from the Way Back Machine
MAKKAH, 25 February 2003 — Grave digging is a job about which there are many stories and not a few mysteries. But many of us think listening to grave diggers’ tales macabre and would prefer not to know the nitty-gritty when it comes to their daily work.
Gravedigging is not like most other work in that it is not done at a specific time, Al-Madinah newspaper commented in a recent article on the subject.
It is definitely not a 9-5 kind of job. It has its own special rules and tools.
Many of the men working as grave diggers are different from other men. After all, they bury our loved ones. So what about the strange stories we hear about this profession? People use it as an excuse to spread false or malicious rumours. Is it because most grave diggers are silent about what they do? Or is it because they work in places nobody else ever visits?
“I learned the job from my father when I was young,” Muhammad Abbadi, who has been a gravedigger for 40 years, told Al-Madinah. “I used to go down in graves with my father to gather bones and bury them somewhere else.”
The custom is for gravediggers to check a grave about two years after burial. If the body has not decayed, it is covered and left. If it has decayed, the bones are then moved to another place. This frees the grave for reuse.
“I was a professional by the time I was 15. Gravedigging is a noble job but only a few people realize its worth. We grave diggers lay to rest those whom we love as well as those whom everybody else loves.”
He went on to explain how he learned what he needed to know by watching everything his father did — “from the smallest to the biggest details.”
“We place the body in the grave and then put a large rock or stone inside to close the grave. But some families ask for grass and wet soil to be put into the grave and then for it to be closed with a rock,” he explained.
Speaking of the time it takes for bodies to decay, he said it took longer now than in the past and felt this was because of the depth of the grave. In the past, graves were nearer the surface. Now they are deeper, and so the contents take longer to decay.
“We work silently, as everything around us encourages us to be quiet,” he said. “My friends and I believe that talking too much may undermine our courage.”
Abbadi said the tales of genies and demons living in graves are nonsense.
“In 40 years of digging graves, I have never encountered such things. Those stories are the products of overactive imaginations. What we do find in graves, however, are reptiles and scorpions. I have been stung many times by scorpions but, thank God, without being seriously harmed.”
He went on to explain how bodies are buried.
“We put the head into the grave first and then turn it on the right side to face the Qibla (the direction of Makkah). When the time comes to open the grave, the first problem is the unpleasant smell. If the body has not decayed, we close the grave again and leave it. It’s a simple job, but difficult to do. When we see the body and the bones, we feel the sadness of the deceased’s family.”
Muhammad Mukhtar, another gravedigger, told Al-Madinah that he has been working in the job for 14 years. It needs strong men with nerves of steel, he said, and men who believe in the work they do.
He talked about the process of reburying bones.
“We bury many bones in one grave. We organize the bones in a way that only professional grave diggers know. When we open the grave to make sure the bones have decayed, we let fresh air in for at least 15 minutes. Otherwise, no one could stand the heat from inside.”
He explained that more than one man is needed to put a dead person into the grave. He said that scorpions were indeed a problem, but “they do not keep us from doing our jobs.”
“We have to make sure that there are at least 25 graves available for use every day. It’s not necessary that all the empty graves be used in one day, but if there is a shortage, it will take about 30 minutes to dig a new one.”
He admitted that the grave diggers did not like to bury people at night, but they have had to get used to doing so. “Standing on a grave makes a person think about his own life,” he reflected. “Sometimes, I wonder why young people are deciding not to work in this profession. It’s honest work and a noble job.”
In the past, he said, Saudis worked as grave diggers, but these days only non-Saudis do the job because “only they seem to have what it takes.”