12 Hours, 62 burials: A gravedigger’s workday at Brazil’s largest cemetery

By Carlos Meneses Sanchez

Sao Paulo, May 19 (efe-epa).- Twelve hours and 62 burials. A day without rest on which there is not even time to pray for the departed. This is a typical workday amid the coronavirus pandemic for the gravediggers at the Vila Formosa cemetery in Brazil, the largest burial ground in Latin America.

“It’s one body after another. We don’t stop,” the men say.

In this gigantic necropolis located in eastern Sao Paulo and where the remains of 1.5 million people lie, the burials are being carried out these days at a rapid pace from dawn until sunset.

There is barely any time for the gravediggers to catch their breath. The work flow doesn’t allow it.

On Monday they worked on 62 burials in one particular plot of ground in the cemetery, and more than half of the deceased had definitely died from – or at least were suspected to have succumbed to – Covid-19, which has killed about 17,000 people nationwide and infected at least 250,000.

“Every day that goes by is harder,” James Alan – the 34-year-old coordinator of the gravediggers at Vila Formosa, where he’s worked for seven years – told EFE.

It’s a tragedy that they all try to emotionally distance themselves from so they don’t become depressed.

6:15-8:20 am: Breakfast, prayers and shovel sharpening.

James leaves his apartment in Cidade Tiradentes, in a poorer area on the periphery of Sao Paulo, one of the areas of the city hardest hit by the virus.

Shortly after 7 am, he gets to Vila Formosa, which is shrouded in early morning fog.

Breakfast in the administration building’s modest dining room and, shortly thereafter, he heads for the dressing room to change clothes, donning a throw-away white jumpsuit, two pairs of gloves and a facemask.

But before heading for “Block 27,” the area where he and his colleagues will work today, he joins the six other men in his team (Edenilson, Osni, Wilker, Sergio, Cristiano and Antonio) for an emotional prayer session combined with a little pep talk.

“We’re going to ‘put on the whole armor of God,'” he says, quoting from the Bible’s sixth chapter of Ephesians.

They finish with a hearty round of applause and start sharpening their spades.

They are ready.

8:30-11:30: Three hours of all-out work.

As soon as they get to Block 27, where there are already dozens of graves open to the sky, the first coffin is brought up by vehicle. It’s not a Covid-19 case, but nobody accompanies the deceased. No relatives, no friends.

It takes them just 120 seconds to cover it, watched attentively by several dogs who, abandoned after their owners died, now live in the cemetery.

At 8:41, the first possible coronavirus fatality arrives.

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