Dying to see more dying

Many have benefited from the war in Iraq, including the defense contractors, the rebuilding companies and the prostheses makers, but you rarely hear about one group of people: the cemetery workers.

NAJAF, Iraq — At what’s believed to be the world’s largest cemetery,
where Shiite Muslims aspire to be buried and millions already have
been, business isn’t good.

A drop in violence around Iraq has cut burials in the huge Wadi al
Salam cemetery here by at least one-third in the past six months, and
that’s cut the pay of thousands of workers who make their living
digging graves, washing corpses or selling burial shrouds.

Few people have a better sense of the death rate in Iraq .

"I always think of the increasing and decreasing of the dead," said
Sameer Shaaban, 23, one of more than 100 workers who specialize in
ceremonially washing the corpses. "People want more and more money, and
I am one of them, but most of the workers in this field don’t talk
frankly, because they wish for more coffins, to earn more and more." [Link]

Just as you and I might check a stock market index in the Wall Street Journal, Sameer keeps his eye on the death market index (DMI) in Cemetery News. The DMI fluctuates greatly in Iraq: one day it’s up by 300 bodies, the next day it’s down by 50. And the death analysts are worse than weather forecasters. Expect an explosion on Tuesday, they say, but Tuesday comes and there’s no explosion, not even in the fireworks factory.

"Certainly, when the number of dead increases I feel happy,
like all workers in the graveyard," said Basim Hameed , 30, a body
washer. "This happiness comes from the increase in the amount of money
we have." [Link]

When the DMI rises, there are smiles all around.

Sameer: "Good news, Basim! The DMI is up by 300."

Basim: "An explosion?"

Sameer: "No, even better. Two explosions. Soon after Bush’s speech."

Basim (shouting): "I love you, George Bush! I love you very much!"

Sameer: "Shhhh … don’t say that so loudly. If the Imam hears you, he won’t like it. You know how he feels about homosexuality."

If you enjoyed this piece, you'll love Melvin's novel Bala Takes the Plunge, available in North America through Amazon.com and McNallyRobinson.com You can also find it at major bookstores in India and Sri Lanka or online at FlipKart, IndiaPlaza, FriendsofBooks or other sites. A number of readers have written reviews of the novel. An excerpt of the novel can be read here.

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