Peruvians find comfort in billboards honoring deceased kin amid pandemic

By Fernando Gimeno

Lima, Aug 25 (efe-epa).- “Beatriz Solis-Rosas: Heaven is now a better place.”

Motorists driving on busy streets in Lima and other Peruvian cities are now seeing that message and thousands of others like it on road-side billboards, which are serving as a means to bid farewell to deceased loved ones during the coronavirus pandemic.

“For us, it’s a profound relief to see my mother’s name displayed there on the billboard. It’s comforting, it brings us joy,” Alfredo Aita – the oldest son of Solis-Rosas, one of 142 doctors who have died of Covid-19 in Peru – told Efe.

The message is a source of consolation after the family was unable to honor her memory with traditional funeral rites following her death.

Likewise, thousands of other families in Peru have been blocked from saying a formal goodbye to their deceased relatives. A total of 120,000 people have died in the country of all causes since the pandemic arrived in March, or 120 percent more than in the same period of previous years.

The number of additional year-over-year deaths in the Andean nation over those six months stands at 65,000, only 28,000 of them due to the coronavirus.

Wakes for people who have died of Covid-19 are prohibited. Initially, all of the bodies were cremated and family members were not allowed to be present for the burning of the corpse; now burials are allowed, but only with a maximum of five direct relatives present.

This new reality led Aita to be among the first to participate in the so-called “Billboards to Bid Farewell” campaign launched by 15 advertising companies, who are providing free-of-charge access to 80 road-side digital display boards nationwide so people can pay their last respects to deceased relatives and friends.

“A campaign like this is a balm for the pain being felt by 33 million Peruvians during this national tragedy,” said Aita, who was unable to arrange a funeral for his mother and now looks with pride at the billboard message displayed in her honor on Lima’s Arequipa Ave.

A ban on inter-provincial travel had prevented him from traveling to Chiclayo, a city around 800 kilometers (500 miles) north of Lima, before his mother – a pediatrician who came down with Covid-19 while treating his coronavirus-infected father and brother – was hospitalized with the disease.

She was later transferred to Lima along with her husband. But although he recovered, she grew increasingly ill and passed away on May 24 at age 72.

It was left to Aita, who lives in the northern city of Trujillo, to deliver that news to his still-hospitalized father; later, the two of them traveled from Lima back to Chiclayo with her ashes.

“It was something very tough and painful. She left (home) alive and returned in ashes. We couldn’t even give her a hug before she departed,” he lamented.

“I didn’t cry at that time. Inside of me, I was thinking … ‘I’m so cold-hearted!'” Aita said. “But three hours later, out of nowhere, I started crying uncontrollably. Even now those tears come back to me.”

The billboard message is a way for Aita to promise his mother to “always honor her memory” and remind her that her children and grandchildren will always be proud of her.

The messages on the digital billboards rotate constantly, with a new one appearing every few seconds and honoring a different family’s relative.

“Paco, your waves are now the clouds. We love you” and “Walter, your smile will shine in heaven, brother” are two of the many other messages that appear with black lettering against a white background, sometimes accompanied by a photo of the dearly departed.

To display a message, people only have to visit and submit a short text. After the message has been published, the author receives a photo of the billboard with their heartfelt words on display.

The idea arose because many companies responded to the lockdown orders and a sharp reduction in motorists on the roads by ceasing to use billboard advertising.

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