Dollarized Goodbyes

The days of wakes in funeral homes and burials in cemeteries are long gone. Cremation has become the solution for caraqueños who can't pay the steep prices of funeral services.

Photo: Meridith Kohut / NYT retrieved

Héctor Bastidas has been moving dead bodies from the Bello Monte morgue in his van for over 28 years. He claims that, since 2015, the impact of inflation has stopped people from burying their parents, partners and children, to the point where nine out of ten bodies he deals with go straight to the crematorium.

Burials are a luxury few Venezuelans can afford. In Caracas, the cheapest option is at the Cementerio General del Sur, the municipal cemetery in Southern Caracas, where plots are free. A grave in the Cementerio del Este (a private cemetery in Eastern Caracas) has to be paid in dollars, and goes for around $600. The Cementerio Jardines del Cercado, a private cemetery on the outskirts of Caracas, offers a slightly cheaper option: a plot costs around $500.

Since 2015, the impact of inflation has stopped people from burying their relatives, to the point where nine out of ten bodies he deals with go straight to the crematorium.

This is the price for the grave itself, the funeral service is extra. In the Nazareth Funeral Home, in Southern Caracas, the package including coffin, permits, transport from the morgue to the parlor, embalming, chapel and transport to the cemetery of choice, went for Bs.S. 2,200,200 in September, around $110. In the Monumental funeral home, that same service goes for over $600.

With these prices, many opt for cremation.

“That’s new,” Bastidas says. “Folks used to say that putting their loved ones in an oven was a sin. Very few mourners would actually say ‘I’ll cremate my mom.’ These are the circumstances, what we’re going through in the country.”

Anyone choosing to cremate a loved one can save over half of what they’d spend in a burial. In the Servicio Nacional de Medicina y Ciencias Forenses (Senamecf), a government body, cremation services for September were billed at Bs.S. 800,000, around $40. The Cementerio Parque Valles del Tuy, in Charallave, can cremate a body for BsS 2,000,000 ($100). 

 A Collective Funeral

While cremation is the cheaper option, it’s still 20 minimum wages. A lot of families are asking for donations, a common practice in slums and smaller towns. New services, like renting a coffin just to move the body from the morgue to the crematorium have appeared.

America Rodríguez’s mother passed away on September 20th. She was 80 years old and died in her sleep. America is a teacher and her health insurance doesn’t cover funeral expenses for her mother so, through grief and pain, she went out for the cheapest funeral home in Caracas. The best price was at the Virgen del Valle funeral home, where she went for one of the new “combos”: embalming the body and renting the coffin for Bs.S. 900,000 ($47). She didn’t have the money, so she wrote her name on the list for help from the Libertador municipality Mayor’s Office, which normally aids with Bs.S. 800,000 for funerals. To get this donation, she had to hand in three requirements: death certificate, three photocopies of the IDs of the deceased person and the relative responsible for the cremation, and the cremation authorization from the cemetery.

Eddy Rojas had better luck. He lost his wife to a respiratory disease, but her insurance policy covered the funeral costs and the transport to the Cementerio General del Sur. “Had it not been for the insurance, I don’t know what I would have paid. Where am I going to get 5,000,000 bolivars?” Eddy works as a blacksmith and lives in a little shack of the José Félix Ribas slum.

He did get help, just not from the state; his two sons and other relatives stood in the Petare square asking for donations for the funeral. It was thanks to bus drivers, mototaxistas, peddlers and neighbors that they got almost Bs.S. 500,000 for candles and coffee.

The Rules of Violence

The bodies of those who die from violence or accidents cannot be cremated. Their mourners have no choice but to bury them, forced Law for Regulation and Control of Funeral Services and Cemeteries, issued in 2014. A corpse relevant to a criminal investigation can’t be turned to ashes because you’d lose the cause of death, wound location, time of death and trajectory of the bullet.

While cremation is the cheaper option, it’s still 20 minimum wages.

There are exceptions, like the case of José Antonio “El Picure” Tovar Colina, former leader of one of the largest gangs in Venezuela, El tren de Aragua. After getting gunned down by law enforcement agents in Guarico, Tovar Colina’s body was cremated without authorization from his relatives. Here, the state blatantly violated the regulation. The vice-minister of criminal investigation of the Interior and Justice Ministry, Katherine Harrington, was present at the time.

Daisy Galaviz

Journalist for El Pitazo and Monitor de Víctimas (Runrunes). Writes for Cosecha Roja, El Espectador, Revista Semana and Historias que laten.