Cemeteries and Funeral Homes Fight COVID-19

New challenges have been added to dollarization and bureaucratic chaos for those who are trying to say goodbye to their loved ones, from fuel shortages to safety measures against the pandemic

A very precious trade that's utterly warped.

Photo: Gretta M. Gil Anzola

El Hatillo Municipal Cemetery, on the way to Los Guayabitos in the southeast corner of Caracas, is empty. You can only hear the wind and birds on the gravestones. Under the overgrown grass, you can barely see the pavement connecting the grounds. There, Luis Enrique Sosa, one of three caretakers, walks. He says the cemetery is only open “for those who died of natural causes, accidents, or homicide. Those who passed from coronavirus can’t be buried, they can only be cremated.”

There are no wakes, the necessary ritual where mourners wrap their heads around the idea that their beloved is no longer here. “Family members no longer wait at the funeral parlor,” Sosa says. “We send them straight to the crypts. We can only allow 10 people in, so that they don’t cram the place, and they have to follow prevention protocols.

“Here, up to four burials could be held in a day, but now it’s only half of that, and sometimes we go days without burying anyone. We currently tend to some ten burials per week, and only when the deceased already owned the burial plot. Sometimes we get the needed materials, and with a family member present, the burial occurs.”

Ashes can be kept at the cemetery, but so far they haven’t received any from someone who died from COVID-19. “A funeral service can cost around $250. The Mayor’s Office provides coffins for those who can’t afford them, and sometimes the family members, to cut costs, help us place the casket in the crypt.”

The Protocol

Sonia Linares, municipal coordinator for El Hatillo Mayor’s Office at El Cementerio del Este, points out that when someone dies from COVID-19, she has to immediately go to office at El Cementerio del Este to deliver the death certificate. Then, “the family members aren’t to be seen again; the employees go and retrieve the body, and the family is told when the cremation is over so they can pick up the ashes.”

She said the same thing Sosa did: “We don’t have wakes for those who died of coronavirus.”

One of the biggest problems his customers face when a loved one dies at home is the very basic step of getting the death certificate.

If it’s any other cause of death, they can hold funerals with a maximum attendance of ten people, with all the safety measures in the parlor. Usually, that number isn’t reached; it’s just close relatives, for the most part.

Guidelines are emailed, explaining how much they have to pay and how to do it digitally, so people don’t have to move around.

Linares said that during the first few months of the radical quarantine (March, April, May, June), they registered one or two burial services per day. After July, things went back to normal, but only those who already own a plot have been able to bury their relatives.

She added that buying a plot is almost $2,000, while cremation is more affordable. “We’ve been flexible with the requirements, because it’s difficult for people to get photocopies, many businesses are closed. Now only one family member comes in to authorize cremation, because many relatives aren’t in the country anymore.”

She also points out that exhumations, transfers, changes of graves and reductions, which is when the body is taken out to dig deeper and make room for the remains of another relative (sharing the plot), are still taking place. The cemetery continues working, but visits to graves aren’t allowed.

The Woes of Saying Goodbye

Esteban (a fake name to protect his identity) owns a funeral home in Zulia. One of the biggest problems his customers face when a loved one dies at home is the very basic step of getting the death certificate.

“Normally this is issued by a hospital close to the place where the person died,” he explains. “Sometimes the person in charge isn’t there, maybe because they didn’t have gas to get to work. Some people have spent an entire day looking for a doctor to issue the document.” 

This happens under the hot temperatures of Maracaibo, where people routinely can go for long stints without electric power.

The funeral home can’t retrieve a body without the certificate, let alone prepare it for cremation or burial. “It has to be signed by a doctor who can certify that the person died of natural causes, and not from an accident or homicide.”

I gave the order that safety protocols had to be followed with each dead body, that they should be treated as if they had coronavirus, that their cause of death didn’t matter.

Once that’s done, there’s the problem of explaining to the relatives that new measures in place during the pandemic prevent them from holding a wake. Esteban says that the discussions unleash fights among family members. When they agree, the employees of the funeral home go and bring the body and take it to a room in the establishment to continue with the funeral protocol.

Esteban worries about not letting people hold funeral services, because they’re not allowing them to have proper closure, to say goodbye to their loved one. “Right now, it might seem like a small thing compared to the thousands of problems we have in the country, but I think it can have psychological impacts.”

After the relatives accept the news, the funeral home has to process the permit to “lay the person to rest, whether by cremation or burial. They have to go to the local prefects, and they might be either at their office or at home, because of the fuel shortage (that severely impacts the state).” Just like Sosa and Linares told us, cemeteries in Zulia only allow 10 people at a service. “Sometimes they only let five people in, but that depends on the cemetery.”

“For a full funeral service, you can use between 30 to 35 lts. of gasoline, so on a weekly basis you can spend $350 to $400 just filling up the hearse,” Esteban explains. “The Mayor’s office donates graves to help some people, and in the case of the truly destitute, they cover cremations”. As for the rest, it’s people living abroad who pay for their loved ones’ funerary expenses.

Ever since the pandemic began in Venezuela, Esteban’s funeral home receives an average of 20 to 30 bodies a month. “It can go up or down, and we do about three or four services per day.”

Can’t Trust Death Certificates Anymore

One of the skills developed by funerary workers is the empathic and assertive approach when dealing with family members. “It’s a very difficult time they’re going through,” Esteban says, “and sometimes they can be in panic or shock, so they need our support and trust.”

Esteban has all the safety measures: biosafety suits, gloves, facemasks, face shields, all to decrease the risk of coronavirus infection, but both he and his employees fear they can transmit the disease to their families because of the work they do. “Since the start of the quarantine, I gave the order that safety protocols had to be followed with each dead body, that they should be treated as if they had coronavirus, that their cause of death didn’t matter, because we can’t be certain that what the death certificate says is true, for our own protection.”

He says that they have dealt with worse diseases, but the difference with COVID-19 and the others is the way it spreads. “Before I leave work, I clean myself with sodium hypochlorite (lye). I’ll probably go bald, but I do it because our job makes us a high-risk group of people, and when I get home, I shower again, with soap and everything.”

He admits that, at first, he and his employees were afraid whenever a symptom similar to COVID-19 would show up. That’s why Esteban decided on testing everyone every 15 days to rule out the disease. “We’re ready for this, but we’re not made of steel. Our greatest fear is making our families sick. Dealing with relatives of the deceased has been the most difficult part, they need extra patience and understanding because of everything the country is going through.”