Lack of Space in East Jerusalem Cemeteries Leads to Morbid New Habit

Shortage of plots in Old City and nearby neighborhoods has people digging up old graves, which are then sold for new burials

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Newly dug stolen graves in the Muslim cemetery just outside the Old City walls.
Newly dug stolen graves in the Muslim cemetery just outside the Old City walls.Credit: Emil Salman

Adeeb Joudeh was surprised to find two new graves in the family burial plot when he went to visit the Bab al-Rahma cemetery, outside the Lion’s Gate of the Old City of Jerusalem, last week. The new graves, next to those of his grandfather and uncle, were dug in place of an old grave of a relative.

The incident is just one of the latest in the widespread phenomenon of stealing and selling gravesites in East Jerusalem cemeteries.

One of the many planning and infrastructure problems in East Jerusalem is the serious shortage of burial plots. Arab neighborhoods that are farther from the center of the city – such as Isawiya and Sur Baher – have their own neighborhood or family cemeteries, but the Old City and the nearby neighborhoods are served by just three cemeteries, which are not very large and almost completely full.

The shortage of burial spots and the fact that existing cemeteries are unregulated – and usually comprise a collection of graves from different periods – makes it easier for grave traders. Palestinian sources in Jerusalem claim that a grave in one of the central cemeteries costs between 800 to 2,000 Jordanian dinars, equivalent to 4,000 to 10,000 shekels – which is over $2,800, at the higher end.

Traders have been known to destroy existing gravestones and even resort to placing fake gravestones in order to “reserve” spots. Then when a mourning family seeks a burial spot, the traders take away the fake grave marker, dig down into the old grave and remove or move the bones they find inside – making room for the new body. The whispers in East Jerusalem are that some keep watch over the cemeteries to see whose graves are visited; graves neglected for a long time may be dismantled, stone by stone, to test the family’s response. 

Joudeh, a Palestinian resident of East Jerusalem, is a familiar figure in the city. His is one of the oldest known Muslim families in Jerusalem and the one that keeps the keys to the Church of the Holy Sepulchre.

The Bab al-Rahma Muslim cemetery on the east side of the Old City of Jerusalem. Credit: Emil Salman

Nine months ago he discovered a new grave in the family plot in Bab a-Rahma, a plot the Joudeh family says it has been using for centuries. The new grave was still empty. After pressing the Islamic Waqf, which manages the cemetery, the new grave was removed. But when Joudeh visited again last week, he discovered two new graves, one replacing an ancient grave belonging to one of his ancestors and one inserted between two preexisting graves – forcing visitors to the cemetery to step on the dead, which is prohibited in Islam. This time, in contrast to previous occasions – the graves contain bodies, which cannot now be removed.

Infuriated, Joudeh complained to the police. “I will not remain silent this time,” he said. “They crossed every boundary. When I went to complain, the police investigator was in shock. He said he’d heard a lot of stories but nobody ever complained. They’re all afraid,” he told Haaretz.

K. knows the problem well. “In our case, graves were stolen from the families of both my father and mother,” he said. “If you don’t ‘live’ inside the grave, then after some months it will be sold to somebody else, and the moment somebody else is inside, there’s nothing you can do. You can even go to the Supreme Court but it won’t help.”

In recent weeks, East Jerusalem social media has been rustling with similar tales. One person, also a member of a very well-known family in the city, wrote that he bought four gravesites for $3,000 – after which the seller told him that the owners had returned from Ramallah and he wanted to cancel the deal and give the money back. The seller actually admitted that he had removed bones from the graves and reburied them in a mass grave for the homeless or those without any family.

The Waqf declined to comment.