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Sons of the Graveyard

Iraq’s Najaf, the world’s biggest and oldest cemetery, through its gravediggers’eyes

In the city of Najaf, Iraq lies Wadi Al-Salam, the world’s largest and oldest graveyard. The name means “Valley of Peace” in Arabic. It is said that five million souls are buried in Najaf, which has been a cemetery for at least 1,400 years.

For many gravediggers, the work is a family tradition. One gravedigger started sixty years ago. As a soldier during the Iran-Iraq War, he became accustomed to being surrounded by death. However, even he has noticed the increasing number of funerals in Najaf every time a new war hits his country. 

In Wadi Al-Salam cemetery in Najaf, Iraq, a gravedigger sits next to a grave. Still taken while filming the RTD documentary Sons of the Graveyard.
Wadi Al-Salam cemetery in Najaf, Iraq relies on an army of workers to keep it run smoothly.

Saraya Salam militia, formerly known as the Mahdi Army, first opposed US forces and then ISIS. It has its own section in the cemetery. A militia spokesman reveals his reasons for joining the group and the true cause of the heavy Iraqi death toll, so apparent in Wadi Al-Salam.

Novice gravediggers are now learning the ropes, but do they really want to spend their lives surrounded by the dead?