Death gets cheaper in the UAE

New crematorium cuts costs, but shipping expat bodies home remains expensive.

Funeral in Abu Dhabi 370 (photo credit: REUTERS/Stringer)
Funeral in Abu Dhabi 370
(photo credit: REUTERS/Stringer)
The government of Abu Dhabi has altered regulations that appear to encourage the use of a new emirate-funded crematorium over burial or repatriation of non-Muslim expatriates.
The cost of funerals has been steadily increasing in the United Arab Emirates (UAE), with coffin prices nearly doubling this year alone. The families and friends of many expatriate workers who die in the UAE are also finding that the cost of shipping the bodies back to their home country is expensive because of the paperwork involved. 
But now steps have been taken that authorities say would ease the misery of mourners by reducing the red tape and permits required and funding the cremation of dead bodies in a modern crematorium built in Al Ain in Abu Dhabi.
“They have spent a great deal of money on this facility and it is a state-of-the-art building,” Don Fox, the chief executive of the Al-Foah Funeral Services in Abu Dhabi, told The Media Line. “No expense has been spared and it gives an aura of serenity and peacefulness to all of the people who have been here.”
The facility was built on the orders of Sheikh Mohammed bin Zayed Al Nahyan, the crown prince of Abu Dhabi and furnaces were lit up for the first time in mid January. Orders were also given to eliminate a police clearance certificate for natural deaths and other permits that can reportedly save up to 1,000 dirhams ($272).
The UAE, a Gulf confederation of seven mini-states, has an enormous number of foreign residents. Of the 8.3 million people living in the UAE in 2012, 7.31 million of them (88.5%) are expats, according to the National Bureau of Statistics. Foreigner workers began arriving in the Gulf nearly half a century ago when the discovery of oil kicked off a massive infrastructure construction drive.
Europeans and Asians, as well as citizens from other Arab countries, have helped turn Abu Dhabi and Dubai from sleepy villages into international trade and financial centers and tourism destinations. Gulf nations are heavily reliant on expatriates to do everything from pouring concrete to running locally-based multinational corporations. But earlier this year, Forbes magazine reported the UAE, was an “expat unfriendly” country.
Until the crematorium was built, expats who passed away would either be boxed up in an expensive coffin to be shipped back to their native lands for burial or interred locally. The local options for non-Muslims were old, run down and poorly tended cemeteries.
“This prompted the government to do something and they provided this marvelous facility,” Fox said, adding that the facility included a multi-faith church that seats 400 people and was easily accessible from all of the UAE. Flowers and other special requests, such as live transmission of funeral services or recorded on DVD, have also become available.  
In Dubai, only caskets sold by the Al-Shindagha Trading Company are approved for transporting the deceased abroad. But that company nearly doubled the price of the coffins from 1,200 dirhams to 2,300. The National, a local daily, reported that the Dubai Health Authority is now trying to bring down the price because poor people struggle to ship the bodies of their loved ones home.
“The cost of transporting a body to a country like India comes to more than 5,000 dirhams with the new rates. It would be good news if the prices are brought down,” C.P. Matthew, the founder of Valley of Love voluntary organization, was quoted as saying.
Fox of Al-Foah Funeral Services confirmed that the price of caskets had doubled. He said that according to international standards of the Institute of Cemetery and Crematorium Management (ICCM), a coffin is even required for cremation. He said some of the coffins they used were custom made, but many were shipped in bulk from abroad.
“Most of them are from China, which seems to be conducting a very thriving business,” Fox said.
Fox said the cost of cremation is considerably less than getting buried back at home. Some 2,500 human remains are estimated to be repatriated from Abu Dhabi and Al Ain annually.
“To have somebody cremated here would be approximately a third of the cost of being repatriated back to their country,” he said. “The reason it’s cheaper so much is because the actual cremation in Al Ain is free. This is paid for by the UAE government.”
In a further move to ease the burial process the health authorities and police agreed that a “no objection certificate” would be required for any natural deaths, but only if buried locally or cremated.
 “One had to have a letter from the police department to release the body for burial or repatriation. Now for burial or cremation in the UAE that is not required if the person dies a natural death,” Fox said. “This eases things up considerably here and makes the procedure a lot faster.”
Despite the moves that will likely channel more business to the crematorium, public awareness among expats in the UAE is still low. Opened since mid-January, Fox expects business to pick up once their website becomes active.
“Ninety-nine percent of the public in the UAE are not aware that this facility is available yet,” Fox said, adding that visits by the ambassadors of the U.S., European countries and word of mouth would also help business. “When that website comes up there is going to be quite a publicity campaign for the benefit of all the populace.”