Social Issues

Exhumations against the clock in Latin America’s largest cemetery

By Carlos Meneses Sánchez

São Paulo, June 15 (efe-epa).- Gravediggers of São Paulo’s Vila Formosa cemetery, the largest in Latin America, carry out exhumations against the clock to make new spaces available for more burials, which have increased since the emergence of the novel coronavirus.

Their working day has become a struggle to meet the high demand in this churchyard, located in the east of São Paulo and where the remains of 1.5 million people are estimated to lie. The epidemic is to blame.

While the average before was 30 burials a day, the number has practically doubled, a trend that has been maintained for the last few weeks and had a domino effect, generating greater pressure on the exhumation work.

“The number of exhumations increased due to the need for burials, to vacate space,” Wilker Costa, 44, a gravedigger for almost a decade, told EFE.

Between January and May, 6,469 exhumations were carried out in the municipal cemetery, according to data from the Mayor’s Office, while burials jumped 37 percent, to 37,555, compared to the same period in 2019.

São Paulo, the largest city in Brazil, has recorded 5,623 deaths and 91,198 confirmed cases of COVID-19, according to the latest official data.

The deaths across the second country in the world hardest hit by the pandemic after the United States, exceed 43,300 and infections are close to 870,000, according to the Ministry of Health.

On Monday in Vila Formosa, a group was in charge of exhuming graves and next to them another group performed burials. Within minutes of removing the skeletal remains from one grave, the space was already occupied by a new body, according to EFE.

Despite the urgency, legalities are still strictly observed. No exhumation of adults takes place before three years from the burial, something which does not prevent more exhumations taking place. According to Costa, in Vila Formosa they have gone from a daily average of 10-15 exhumations to 15-20.

“We start from the legs up” and “it takes about half an hour,” explained a gravedigger who prefers not to reveal his name. He is dressed in a blue jumpsuit, mask and gloves, and exhumes a grave with a shovel.

He is one of the workers subcontracted by São Paulo’s City Hall amid the coronavirus crisis.

Usually, a family member is part of the entire process and then places the skeletal remains in one of the niches in the cemetery walls.

Cristiane Gouveia made an appointment to exhume her father as soon as she found out that the cemeteries were freeing up space. “I was concerned about that,” she told EFE.

However, sometimes no one comes. In that case they keep the remains in a blue plastic bag that they place at the foot of the grave where they were buried.

“We keep them properly identified and in the same grave, which is remade and reorganized” for a new burial, says Costa.

The threat of too many deaths for the graveyards to cope with, as has occurred with the mass graves in the Amazonian city of Manaus, has forced the Mayor’s Office to buy a dozen containers in order to accelerate the exhumations and thus open new graves in cemeteries.

Each one of these containers has a capacity to store around 20 urns, and the remains that are unclaimed are expected to rest in them.

The Mayor’s Office also decided to preventively open 13,000 new graves, of which, according to the initial plan, 8,000 were dug in Vila Formosa.

On June 1, the state of São Paulo — the richest and most populous in Brazil with 46 million inhabitants and also the most affected by COVID-19 — began a de-escalation phase with the epidemiological curve still rising and under pressure from businesses to relax isolation measures.

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