I Can’t Afford To Die
BY HEGHINAR MELKOM MELKOMIAN
Once there was and there was not…
Some three years ago I was sitting in a doctor’s office – one of Armenia’s best oncologists and a very good friend of my mother – who was telling my mother how many people fail to visit a doctor because they know that they need an operation and cannot afford one. The doctor was explaining to my mother how many people in Armenia fail to pay prophylactic visits to the doctor because of financial issues or, once the doctor tells them they need an operation, patients never show up for an operation. According to him he has dealt with numerous cases when the family of the patient rushes in the sick with hemorrhaging or another grave condition – when he can no longer resist the illness or the calls of his family to undergo an operation – and they perform an immediate operation. The doctor says that their mission is to save people’s lives and they perform an operation regardless of the patient’s financial status. After the operation the doctors go to their cabinets, sit in front of their desks, and grab the phone and call; call benefactors or various foundations in an effort to find the money necessary to cover the operation costs.
I attentively listen to the doctor’s story and think about my fellow citizens who choose death in their right mind, whose lives are worth nothing in their eyes, since their life will leave nothing, but the debts their families have to cover for the operation, the hospital room and the drugs. I wonder how much an operation costs for a man who chooses death. I wonder how much death costs for a man who can no longer afford to live. According to the behavior of such people if we materialize life and death in the form of money, we will have more money if we chose life and less if death. Is that true? I began thinking and imagining and drifted away with my thoughts and only returned to planet earth by my mother’s voice when it was time to go home.
This August the only grandmother I have ever known passed away. This was the first death in our family after we moved to Armenia 19 years ago and the first one in my conscious age. My sisters and I believe this is yet another manifestation of becoming established in Armenia: having a family grave! No one in our family knew anything about organizing a funeral in Armenia and since my father wanted to conduct the funeral as soon as possible, he was running around from here to there and calling his local friends in order to understand what comes after what and how things need to be done. His friends were of course very helpful, but not entirely, since barsgahays, have different traditions when it comes to both life and death.
Four months after the death of my grandmother, our family grave expanded with the death of my mother’s first cousin who moved from Syria to Armenia two years ago. While my father was sharing his “experience” with my uncle’s sons and helping them understand the process of organizing a funeral, I also learned a thing or too. However, with two such personal experiences in my life, I still have the same unanswered question I did three years ago; I still do not know how much death costs in Armenia, i.e., how much funerals cost in Armenia. I will write down everything that needs to be done and the prices that need to be paid for a funeral. Ready? Here we go.
First of all let me give you an interesting piece of information. Did you know that three years ago the Supreme Patriarch, Catholicos of all Armenians, Garegin II announced that a funeral service could be conducted in all churches, but after many people filed complaints that they did not want to get married or baptise their children in a church where caskets were placed, the church was left with two choices: weddings and baptisms or funerals; it chose wedding and baptisms in all of its churches and funerals in only one, the Noragavit Church. In order to conduct the funeral service in other churches, the approval of the Catholicos will be necessary. But since we have the Noragavit Church guaranteed, let’s stick to it. The church is located in a village adjacent to Yerevan; some 25 minutes drive.
I called the Ararat Diocese in order to understand how much the service officially costs, since I was a bit confused while comparing the prices paid for my grandmother’s and my uncle’s liturgy. I was told that there is no fixed sum, since the church is not a market and believers pay as much as they can afford to and after I told them what had happened to us, I was asked very politely to fill in a complaint. However, right now I simply want to share the experience. During my grandmothers liturgy the priest of the church asked for about $100, but for my uncle’s liturgy he asked for about $50. Judging by what? I do not know. But since my intentions are not to criticize, but rather to shed light on the issue, I will leave my comments for my dear diary.
Ok, so now you have the church sorted out, it’s time to visit the burial bureau to receive a plot. According to the RA law about “Organizing funerals and operating cemeteries and crematoriums” the maximum size for a plot allocated for organizing a family cemetery is 12 square meters, which is allocated free of charge; if the size of the plot exceeds the above mentioned size, it is allocated at a cost set by the RA Government. However, at the bureau you suddenly encounter a set of issues, such as “there are no more available plots”, or “we can suggest this plot that costs about $600”, but it is a plot for only one in an almost unreachable spot.
To cut a long story short, they offer a 12 square meters plot for about $1000 for my grandmother and one for about $800 for my uncle. Bottom line, it is free of charge, but if you want one you have to pay for it. Now don’t think of calling them and asking for the price of a plot because I assure you they will answer in a somewhat annoyed and surprised tone that it is free of charge. Now, let’s see what else might be needed. Oh, I almost forgot the casket. This is also optional, there are caskets as low as about $100 and others at about $2000. By the same above-mentioned law all caskets should be transported by hearse and renting one can cost from about $40 to $300, depending on the model of the car.
Did you manage to do the math? No? Well neither did I because there are no fixed sums and so an average funeral without any luxuries (the most expensive casket or vehicle), can cost between 1000 to 2000 US dollars.
Today, some three years after my mother’s conversation with the doctor, after the death of my grandmother and my mother’s cousin I sit in front of my laptop and imagine this scenario: the ambulance rushes in a man who has previously been diagnosed with, say, cancer and he has internal bleeding now, because he couldn’t afford an operation suggested by the doctor years ago. The doctor recognizes him at once and tells his wife, “We are taking him to the operating theater immediately”, the wife responds, “But doctor, we cannot afford an operation”, the doctor says, “Well if we do not perform an operation right now, he will die”, the wife looks directly into the doctor’s eyes and says, “But doctor, we cannot afford a funeral.”
Now I realize that ‘How much does a funeral cost in Armenia or, is death more expensive than life’ are not questions generated as a result of my fantasy alone. I believe this is truly a very serious issue in Armenia. If you think I am exaggerating and that 1000 or 2000 US dollars are not worth such a long story, let me remind you that in detailed analysis, partly based on government statistics, the World Bank estimated that the proportion of Armenians living below the official poverty line reached 28.4 percent in the second quarter of this year. Now imagine living in Armenia, earning the minimum state salary which is about $80 and learning that you need an operation or else you will die, what will you choose? No, tell me, “Can you afford to live or to die?”
And three apples fell from heaven: one for the storyteller, one for him who made him tell it, and one for you the reader.