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article imageFinal farewells at Mexican cemetery lose luster over coronavirus

By Yussel GONZALEZ (AFP)     Jun 5, 2020 in World

The peculiar nature of the job means they have more work than ever right now. But Mexico's gravediggers and crematorium workers say they are paying a heavy price for constant exposure to other people's grief during the coronavirus pandemic.

The silver protective suit worn by Jose Ramirez makes him look like an astronaut.

So far it's been an effective shield against infection, but it offers no barrier to other people's suffering, he says.

"You don't get used to other people's pain, and when you are handing over the urn, it affects you and it's very difficult for us to stand it," said Ramirez.

The 49-year-old is in charge of receiving corpses at the municipal cemetery in Ciudad Nezahualcoyotl just outside Mexico City, then delivering the ashes back to the family after cremation three hours later.

Juan Carlos Cruz fires up the oven at the crematorium
Juan Carlos Cruz fires up the oven at the crematorium
ALFREDO ESTRELLA, AFP

"Maybe you have to harden your appearance, but you don't lose your sentimental side," he said.

The gas oven in front of him flared as he introduced a black body bag containing a suspected COVID-19 victim.

It was the eighth bagged corpse he and his work partner Juan Carlos Cruz cremated that day.

Both men say they are emotionally affected by the confusion of families who are bewildered by the speed with which the disease kills.

"They tell you: I arrive at the hospital with my relative, I chat to him. After three or four days he's no longer with me. And then they give him back to me in ashes," said Cruz, 37.

Cruz admits the whole business gives him the creeps: "I'm scared of becoming infected. We run a lot of risks, we have family, we have people waiting for us at home."

Humberto Montes' work by contrast has pretty much dried up.

Jose Ramirez takes a rest during the cremation of a coronavirus victim in Ciudad Nezahualcoyotl
Jose Ramirez takes a rest during the cremation of a coronavirus victim in Ciudad Nezahualcoyotl
ALFREDO ESTRELLA, AFP

A funeral musician, his serenades for the dead -- long a part of final farewells in Mexico -- are no longer wanted by grieving families who are shocked at the swiftness of death and burial during the pandemic.

These men are the last links in a chain of tragedy leading from sick bed to hospital to a tomb in this Mexico City suburb.

The pandemic sweeping through Mexico has so far left more than 105,000 people infected and caused almost 13,000 deaths.

- 'Many don't believe' -

Worker Daniel Angeles (L) during an inhumation at the municipal cemetery in Ciudad Nezahualcoyotl
Worker Daniel Angeles (L) during an inhumation at the municipal cemetery in Ciudad Nezahualcoyotl
ALFREDO ESTRELLA, AFP

Nobody speaks as Daniel Angeles seals up a hole-in-the-wall grave with bricks as a small group of close family members look on.

But what relatives say about the death of their loved ones from COVID-19 plays on his mind.

"Many don't believe it, they practically say that what is killing the citizenry is the government," said 25-year-old Angeles after the funeral of a person who died from a non-virus-related illness.

He says other families readily admit that "in their case it was because of Covid and that it took a heavy toll, that it started with symptoms of fever and cough," steadily worsening until they died.

A statue of Christ at the Municipal Pantheon of Ciudad Nezahualcoyotl  which has the highest number ...
A statue of Christ at the Municipal Pantheon of Ciudad Nezahualcoyotl, which has the highest number of coronavirus infections in Mexico
ALFREDO ESTRELLA, AFP

Angeles said he and his team used to bury three bodies a day before the pandemic, now it's up to 15 a day.

What strikes him mostly, apart from grief, is the bewilderment of families at the sheer speed of a loved one's departure, and the fact that funeral gatherings are necessarily tiny, by order of the authorities.

"It's quick, without saying goodbye or anything like this. People are out of the loop, confused. When it's because of Covid, they go straight away and they don't have the opportunity to say goodbye."

- Singing through masks -

Humberto Montes' mask makes him feel uncomfortable. He and the other members of his trio just can't sing properly with them on. It's the least of their worries, however, as business has all but dried up.

Humberto Montes (C) with musicians Roberto Maldonado (L) and Israel Mundo (R)  wait to offer their s...
Humberto Montes (C) with musicians Roberto Maldonado (L) and Israel Mundo (R), wait to offer their services before a funeral at the municipal cemetery in Ciudad Nezahualcoyotl on June 3
ALFREDO ESTRELLA, AFP

"With the masks we are not working at ease and the voice doesn't come out the same way," said Montes, 60. His two partners read the Bible to kill the boredom as they wait for customers.

Spotting an opportunity, Montes carries his guitar over to a graveside, offering his services to a mourning family. They turn him away.

"It's very difficult, people are very scared," he told AFP.

"They are worn out from visits to the funeral home, coffins, and then they need to pay here too," at the cemetery.

The day before, he barely made 60 pesos (less than $3) when in the past he brought home up to $23.

Before the pandemic, people asked him to play when they visited relatives' graves or to soften the pain at a funeral gathering.

Instruments are laid aside as funeral musicians wait for work at Ciudad Nezahualcoyotl  a hotspot fo...
Instruments are laid aside as funeral musicians wait for work at Ciudad Nezahualcoyotl, a hotspot for coronavirus infections in Mexico
ALFREDO ESTRELLA, AFP

"They would ask for up to eight songs, we were very happy," said Montes.

"But since the pandemic began, they don't go for anything fancy, there are no visits. People just come with their corpses now and they don't stay long."

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