With graveyard space running out in many parts of Turkey, Antalya Mayor Mustafa Akaydin’s comments about opening a crematorium in the Mediterranean city have sparked debate around the country. Funeral companies say there is increasing demand for cremation and that the practice is legal, but Islamic scholars argue that it is against religious valuesCrowded conditions at graveyards in the Mediterranean city of Antalya have sparked debate within Turkey about the possibility of establishing crematoriums in the country.
“We can’t solve the problem of finding space for graveyards; our current graveyards will be filled up in three months,” Antalya Mayor Mustafa Akaydin told daily Hürriyet last week. “I have thought about opening a crematorium as a solution, but I know that I will get negative reactions for saying that. We live in a Muslim country.”
Though current law allows municipalities to open crematoriums if there is demand, it does not specify how to do so, and those who wish to provide or make use of such services may face opposition from the country’s majority Muslim population, as Islamic religious authorities oppose cremation of the body after death.
“There is increasing demand for being cremated, especially from foreign people who live in Turkey,” Murat Arslanoglu, the owner of Fempa Funeral Services in Antalya, told the Hürriyet Daily News & Economic Review. “Almost 5 percent of our customers want to be cremated and I think it should be a matter of freedom.”
Arslanoglu said he has applied to both the Istanbul and Antalya metropolitan municipalities to build a crematorium in Turkey, but received negative responses.
“The Istanbul Metropolitan Mayoralty told us that the issue is outside the scope of its power,” Arslanoglu told the Daily News. “But I think it said this since there is no specification about how [a crematorium] can be implemented.”
The current public sanitation law delegates responsibility for designating and managing graveyard spaces to city administrations.
“If the law allows [cremation] but doesn’t specify the requirements, it should be interpreted as a legal right,” Ali Ersin Gür, the former president of the Contemporary Lawyers Association, told the Daily News. “There are many people with different beliefs in Turkey and if they have such a demand, legally it is a right.”
Islamic religious authorities, however, oppose cremation. “According to Islamic rules, the dead can only be shrouded and buried,” said Saim Yeprem, a divinity professor at Istanbul Marmara University. “Therefore, a Muslim person cannot be cremated.”
Mehmet Nuri Yilmaz, the former president of the country’s Religious Affairs Directorate, agreed. “It is not a valid practice in Islam,” Yilmaz told the Daily News. “Islamic traditions require burying the body under the earth. However, if a person wants to be cremated, they should be given that choice.”
Turkish actress Meral Okay is among the people who identify as Muslims but still want to be cremated after they pass away. “I am not a person close to Buddhism or far from Islam. I am a very devout person,” Okay said during an interview. “But I think it should be left to us, not to the state, to decide what to do with our bodies after we die.”
Some believe Turkish society is not ready to accept crematoriums. “It is something that people are not used to, especially in small cities,” Ali Tekinsoy, who offers burial services in Konya, a city in Central Anatolia, told the Daily News. “Since there is less ethnic diversity, the burial services here are very traditional. Therefore, many people will oppose such an idea, saying that it is against religion.”
The debate about crematoriums comes amid increasing prices, and decreasing space, in the country’s graveyards. According to a report by daily Milliyet, grave plots in Istanbul range between 1,250 and 12,000 Turkish Liras, plus burial services, which may cost as much as 4,000 liras. In Ankara, there is only enough space left enough for the next three years of burials.
“We really don’t have much space left for new graveyards. A crematorium will help resolve this problem. Seventy percent of the dead in England are cremated each year,” said Fempa Funeral Services owner Arslanoglu. “But another solution would be to privatize the graveyards so that new spaces can be found. This is also a model applied in many European countries.”
The Gencer case
Despite the urgency surrounding the current debate, it is not the first time cremation has been discussed in Turkey. When famous Turkish opera singer Leyla Gencer died two years ago, she was cremated according to her requests in Italy, where she spent her life. Her ashes were subsequently brought to Turkey and scattered over Istanbul’s Bosphorus Strait.
The law determining whose ashes can be brought to Turkey was modified in January 2010, however. Under the new regulations, only Turkish citizens or those who have a Turkish citizen as a first-degree relative have the right to have their remains transported back to Turkey after being cremated.
“It must be a right for everyone,” said Arslanoglu. “Especially if we want to be a member of the European Union, we need to provide such freedom.”
A crematorium in the 1930s
There are no crematoriums currently in Turkey, but documents show that one such facility existed in the 1930s at Istanbul’s Zincirlikuyu Cemetery.
According to General Director of Burial Sites Adem Avci, the graveyard remained open for almost five years, but was later closed due to lack of use.
Another attempt was made in 1975 to erect a crematorium in Ankara, but it was unsuccessful.