The Last Funeral Director on Earth – Profile of a Man Burying Bodies in Syria

By: Justin Nobel | Date: Tue, May 14th, 2013

Aleppo was once a grand city, these days butchered bodies are washing up in the main river. The city has been virtually destroyed, thousands of people have died, many have been women and children.

He has buried more than 234 bodies from the river. Most are men and boys, their hands bound behind their backs, their skulls broken by bullets, often their bodies destroyed beyond recognition.

His name is Hisham, and reporter Luke Mogelson recently wrote about him in a devastating New Yorker article about the situation in Aleppo, Syria.

Hisham is a lanky, bearded man. He wears black boots, black nylon pants and a black pleather jacket. He is 28. His tools are a rusty pickaxe and an ancient spade with a bent blade.

“I’ve seen every kind of wound,” said Hisham. “Axe, knife, shootings, and yesterday, for the first time, we saw a man who had had his throat cut. When we found him in the river, his head was twisted around, facing backward. He’d gone to pick up his salary from the regime side. He’d been a janitor in a school there. He was an old man. He went with his son, who’s still missing.”

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In February, the United Nations estimated that the number of people killed in Syria was approaching 70,000. The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights verified 6,500 deaths in March alone. Aleppo is one of the oldest continuously inhabited cities on earth. As of a few years ago there were more than 2,000,000 inhabitants. People have lived there for perhaps more than 2,500 years. In 2006, Aleppo was named the “Islamic Capital of Culture 2006”. Presently, more than half of all the private buildings in Aleppo have been damaged or destroyed.

The city is now divided between the rebel side and the regime side. The river runs down the middle.

Hisham records every corpse he buries. He writes a number on a piece of paper, places it on the victim’s chest then photographs the victim and records where they are buried.

Dreams Of Death

Hisham has a wife and five children of his own. These days, he rarely sees them. “When he sleeps, Hisham sees the faces of the people he has buried: faces disfigured by bullets and water and the river stones they are dragged over before they reach him. His most haunting dream is of a boy, shot in the head, about the same age as his eldest son. In the dream, as Hisham kneels to lay him in his grave, the boy reaches up and wraps his arms around his neck.”

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People come to Hisham looking for their sons, brothers, cousins and fathers. If someone goes missing it can be assumed they are dead, but relatives want to be sure, they want to check the body. One day a man with an amputated leg came to see Hisham, he was looking for the body of his sister’s husband, who had disappeared two weeks prior, while out buying milk for his children.

She Kept Kissing The Corpse…

Hisham’s records indicated the sister’s husband were not in his cemetery, they were in another cemetery, and so he led the man there. But the tender of that cemetery could not find the body. They found many other bodies:

“Here a father, mother, and child were buried on the same day….Here is a young woman killed in an air strike….Here is a thirteen year-old who was found in the river.”

And then another body from the river, so badly damaged by the water as to be unrecognizable. “Still, when his wife saw the corpse, she embraced him,” said the cemetery tender. “He had been shot in the face and his head was completely ruined. But the woman kept kissing it.”

How does Hashim deal with all the death? How do we deal with someone like Hashim? How do we comprehend his world?

“It seems like the revolution has been going on forever,” Hashim told Mogelson. “Death is very close…It is close to everybody. It doesn’t matter who you are, or what you do, death is close to you.”

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