To me, Caracas has always been a monster. I avoid it as much as I can, but this time there was no way around it: My mother called and news were bad. A distant cousin had died and I was to attend the memorial in the capital, on behalf of my family.
I was in for a punch in the gut.
The Cementerio del Este funeral home is a calm space with a large panoramic view of the city. Its long hall has three glass chapels on each side, silver benches all along and two convenient vending machines. At first, it seemed like a good place to say goodbye. It wasn’t until I noticed the sign on my late cousin’s wake that I knew something was off:
(08/08/17) Departure time: 3:45 p.m.
Aren’t departures for airports?
“This funeral home charges by the hour. ‘Departure time’ is the time they’ll remove the casket from the chapel and have the burial. This space will be available for another wake in 20 minutes.”
Funerals by the hour?
Turns out, demand for services here (allegedly “the safest location in Caracas”) is so high, they have waiting lists and some families may wait a whole week for a proper funeral. My folks were lucky, they only waited for three days.
I realized coffins were coming and going, because most people can only afford an hour or two. The funeral home’s resident priest, on automatic pilot, visited each chapel, phoned in a really, really short ceremony and that was that. I guess even holy water is in short supply.
How much is it? Four hours of funeral services can cost up to 7 million bolívares (minimum wage is Bs. 97,531). If you need prayer or a song, it’s extra. Some people just get buried, as their families can’t afford the funeral. If you chose cremation, you still must rent a casket for a thirty-minute ceremony.
We started to leave, but there’s more: Our cars had to be searched.
This shit is sickening. I’m used to funerals that last a couple of days, but as funeral parlors have fallen prey to crime, normal wakes have become a luxury. You’d be grieving and confused and your car would get jacked or your family mugged.
Indignities, however, weren’t over. I was snapped out of my introspection by a familiar ringtone. “No way” I said to myself.
Way. My cousin’s sister was calling via Skype to “be at the ceremony” – on such short notice, it was impossible for her to pay for the trip and escape the obligations of the life she fled Venezuela to have. I can’t quite describe our feelings. We buried or cousin with a Skype call going on. We said farewell, placed flowers and prayed. We started to leave, but there’s more: Our cars had to be searched.
“People steal tombstones and lettering, so we must search you guys.”
It’s like La Patria is never satisfied. Nevermind the loss, the pain, the struggle to remain alive with a collapsed medical system, the regime demands more. It feeds off of your misery. It’s not enough to lose democracy, it’s not enough to break hundreds of families apart. It’s not enough that if you get a chronic disease, like my cousin’s cancer, you might as well be gone already. The beast still needs you to pay a toll when you’re at your worst.
When enough is enough? Will they burn everything to the ground and rule over the ashes of what we were?
[América fought a brave, courageous battle against breast cancer, struggling, as every cancer patient in Venezuela, to get the medications she needed. She was lionhearted, and she will always be loved. May she rest in peace.]