x Abu Dhabi, UAE Friday 21 July 2017

Cremation set to come to Abu Dhabi

Families of expatriates who die in the emirate can face a high cost for transporting the body overseas.

The emirate's first crematorium for non-Muslims in Al Ain. Non Muslims can also be buried on the grounds near the crematorium.
The emirate's first crematorium for non-Muslims in Al Ain. Non Muslims can also be buried on the grounds near the crematorium.

Al FOAH // All things considered - as he juggled rounds at the Montgomerie golf club with commitments to his family and executive duties at an oil firm - Alan Harrison found the Emirates a good and simple place to live. When he died, however, the country suddenly became far more complicated.

The Scottish expatriate, who succumbed to lung cancer at the age of 55, had spent 10 happy years in the Emirates. As with scores of other expatriates in the UAE, Mr Harrison wished to be cremated upon dying. He had instructed his family to sprinkle his ashes from Jebel Hafeet. "We had a lot of history with the country," his widow, Lorraine, 61, said from her home in Malaysia. "Alan didn't want to leave. He wanted to be committed in the Emirates."

But restrictive burial laws, what Mrs Harrison sees as inadequate information from the British Embassy and the UAE's lack of proper cremation grounds prevented that from happening. Mr Harrison's Abu Dhabi visa meant he could not be legally cremated in Dubai, where the country's only licensed crematorium operates. Begging the Dubai facility to overlook the visa issue was not an option. "A miserable and trying time," Mrs Harrison said. "I didn't want my sons to plead with them, which is why I took my husband back to Scotland."

The situation is particularly common to families from Abu Dhabi, according to Vivian Albertyn, the manager of Middle East Funeral Services in Dubai. Repatriation can be exorbitantly expensive, sometimes costing as much as Dh30,000 (US$8,200). "A lot of people want to be cremated here," Mr Albertyn said, "but because of the visa issue, they can't get it done." A solution may be on the horizon. The first modern crematorium for non-Muslims in Abu Dhabi emirate has been constructed; it only needs to find a way to open.

Al Ain Municipality built the Dh25 million facility in Al Foah. It plans to have it running by early next year after selecting an operator. Mohammed al Ketbi, who is in charge of cemetery services for the city centre, hopes the crematorium will fulfil the dying wishes of non-Muslims who choose cremation. "When this is open, people like [Mrs Harrison] will have the chance to do this," he said. While cremation is prohibited in Islam, Mr al Ketbi acknowledged that more expatriates are choosing to make Abu Dhabi not only their home but also their final resting place.

"We didn't have cremation before; only burying bodies," he said. "As our traditions and customs, it's something strange for us. We've seen it only in movies, but we're opening this facility for the expats." Although the Al Foah cemetery was built nearly two years ago in the desert, it still lacks an operator and a business plan. Meanwhile, Dh2m worth of equipment, including an incinerator from the UK, lies under plastic sheets indoors.

"It's wonderful, but it's been standing empty, collecting dust," said Mr Albertyn, who has proposed to run the grounds with Middle East Funeral Services. John Abdo, the managing director of Nael Energy in Al Ain, is also bidding to manage the cemetery, which contains a small chapel and offices. "A lot of expats are living in this area now and could use this facility," he said. "This is the first in the emirate, so it's going to serve a lot of non-Muslims. We're just waiting for the contract to be awarded."

Cremations in Abu Dhabi are available for as little as Dh200 (US$55) at crude desert sites towards Liwa, but Mr Albertyn called that process "inhumane." "You drive a body with a four-by-four ambulance to the desert and pack a wood fire," he said. "It's absolutely horrible." Under UAE law, a body cannot be buried or cremated in an emirate unless the deceased held a residency visa from that emirate. The Harrisons obtained Abu Dhabi visas before moving to the Lakes in Dubai.

Mrs Harrison learned too late that her husband's visa would present problems at Dubai's Hindu temple, which at present houses the UAE's only working crematorium. "We got a phone call the night before Alan's cremation was due to happen," she recalled. "It was the HR lady from Alan's company, and whatever she said to my son, he went white." Mrs Harrison took the phone. "The HR lady told us she had now found out we were Abu Dhabi residents, so it was illegal to go ahead," she said. "She was asking my sons to take my husband's car to the morgue at Rashid Hospital, dress him, take him to the Hindu temple and beg them to allow us to cremate the body. It was horrendous."

Mrs Harrison was disturbed that the British Embassy did not inform her of the visa rule beforehand. "I was quite angry that we weren't kept up to date with what we should do." After the funeral, she was asked to write a guide for the embassy to help other families navigate the UAE's burial and cremation rules. Had Al Foah's crematorium been running when her husband died in 2006, Mrs Harrison said, it would have been the best option.

"It's out in Al Ain, so it's a two-hour drive, but it's good that at least they're doing something there," she said. "They seem to be the forerunners." The Hindu temple in Dubai does not keep a record of the number of cremations it performs, according to Hemandas Bhadia, a member of the committee that runs the site. Mr Bhadia said staff at the temple had previously turned away families because "for us, cremation is only allowed to someone with Dubai visas."

He added: "We accept anybody - British, American, Christians - but they must have the proper documents." As for Mrs Harrison, she has no quibbles with the UAE, despite "the traumatic circumstances" of her husband's passing and the bureaucratic confusion thereafter. "In the end, we remember the country was good to us and we had great memories there. We really loved it," she said. "It was our home, after all."

mkwong@thenational.ae