Backyard Burials: the New Venezuelan Way of Death

Improvised burials are the new normal for poor Venezuelans. With so little on offer for the living in Venezuela, what can the dead expect?

Photo: Dinero retrieved

In Los Tres Reyes Magos neighborhood in Maracaibo, Zulia State, Ender Bracho (39) died due of septicemia in his home. The hospitals in the area couldn’t take him due to the shortage of medicines and his family couldn’t afford a burial, so the body had to remain for two days in his room, under a mosquito net, surrounded by fans to hide the smell.

The Brachos tried to use their funeral insurance to cover the costs, but it was useless. The contract had expired due to late payments. Then, they asked the Mayor’s Office and the Governor’s Office for help. By law, the State must offer free funeral services for poor and homeless citizens as needed. But there was no answer.

Since the government didn’t respond, the Brachos dug up a hole in their backyard. They buried Ender there, wrapped in bedsheets. The improvised burial was documented by journalist Lenin Danieri. After the event had spread through social media, the Governor’s Office finally broke the silence: they paid for the funeral and enabled a space in the San Francisco de Asís graveyard.

Burying the dead has become an ordeal that affects many families in extreme poverty: 61.2% of the population, according to the Survey on Living Conditions (Encovi) 2017.

Due to the steep costs of funeral services, some families have been forced to improvise coffins out of black plastic bags or closets. Their backyards now double as graveyards. Desperate measures that show the cracks of a country in crisis, where there’s no respect for citizens, dead or alive.

“People at the Governor’s Office pressured the family to deny what happened and say that it was made up by the media, that the governor was always attentive. Both the mother and the sister refused,” said Danieri, who was threatened by the government for reporting the incident. For those in power, it’s better to keep up appearances instead of showing respect for the losses of the most vulnerable citizens.

Ender hasn’t been the only victim. In Barinas, Larry Toro, a member of the Bolívar Chávez Battle Units (UBCh), denounced in a video that since he didn’t get any help from authorities or the United Socialist Party of Venezuela (PSUV), he had to bury his mother in his backyard. Unfortunately, the crisis affects everyone, pro-government or not.

Also, in Portuguesa, the relatives of Ramón Francisco Arroyo left his corpse at the doors of the Mayor’s Office. The uncertainty of not knowing what to do with the body was stronger than the pain, because mayor Onofrio Cavallo refused to support them for the burial.

Nowadays, hiring a full funeral service—basic chapel, coffin, preparation of the body, coffee service, legal advisory and transport—is about Bs.S. 50,000. Additionally, a plot in the graveyard costs Bs.S. 25,000. Venezuelans need about 40 minimum wages to pay the full amount.

But sky-high costs don’t guarantee quality service. Due to the lack of foreign currency and supplies, the companies that manufacture coffins use medium-density fibreboard (MDF) to make them, instead polished sheets of steel or wood. The hearse fleets of funeral parlors are also facing problems due to the shortage of car parts, oil or tires, which causes delays in moving the bodies.

Jhon Quiroz (27) had to make the arrangements when his grandmother died due to respiratory failure in her home in Western Caracas. He remembers it as the most distressing moment in his life. The cold body had to wait for two days until the funeral parlor picked it up. “I couldn’t even cry over grandma.”

But the collapse has also affected other segments of the funeral industry. Criminals gravitate to graveyards, as reports arise with cases of desecrated tombs and stolen plaques. On top of this, the headache of the legal hurdle joins the heartache of citizens, since, due to the incompetence of authorities, it might take days to get the necessary documents.

When Roberto Alas claimed the body of his uncle in El Llanito Hospital, he could attest to the fact that decadence has also affected morgues. What he saw was sinister: eight bodies were sprawled on stretchers with no cover. Since the air conditioning was out of order, the stench filled the place. There was no illumination and cold storage was broken. He had trouble identifying his uncle, because decomposition had bloated and deformed him. Although he had already paid for a full funeral service, the body had to be cremated at once. “It’s not the same, to remember him in normal condition and remember him in that state.I still get chills when I remember it.”

Abandoned bodies are also an issue in morgues. Whether the body was identified or not, some families leave it there because they don’t have money to take them out. Once again, the State should take care of this problem and send the corpses to mass graves after some time, but it doesn’t happen.

While the government remains silent and ignores the tragedy, the dehumanization of death will continue. The further the country advances into economic collapse, the more cases we’ll see of improvised burials and unattended bodies. After all, if there’s nothing to offer the living in Venezuela, what can we expect for the dead?

Valentina Gil

Journalism student at Universidad Católica Andrés Bello. Compulsive reader, movie lover and comic fan. Writer in the making.