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  HOME | Brazil (Click here for more)

12 Hours, 62 Burials: A Gravedigger’s Workday at Brazil’s Largest Cemetery

SAO PAULO – 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.

“It’s D3,” says one of the gravediggers. D3 is the code marked on the upper right corner of the medical papers indicating that the victim died from COVID-19 or that results of the medical test to detect the disease has not yet come through.

By the end of the first 30 minutes, they’ve already completed six burials. The last one was attended by a rather large group of people.

Some of the relatives of Maria Guerreiro, who is suspected of succumbing to the coronavirus, embrace the coffin, but there’s no time for anything more. A few minutes go by, the gravediggers invite the people to depart. They’re working against the clock, and there are more coffins coming in.

“We can’t get involved (emotionally), we have to be professionals at that time,” James says.

If they did inquire, they would learn that this is the third burial for the family, and all of the departed are suspected of dying from COVID-19.

The situation gets complicated. The hearses and other funerary vehicles transporting the coffins are lining up.

During one 20-minute interval, they bury four more people, three of whom were potential COVID cases. Things begin to back up. The noise of the spades mixes with the laments of the relatives.

“It’s difficult nowadays,” James says.

12:00-15:00: Lunch by shifts, more coffins arrive.

Around midday, the sun begins to take its toll on the energies of the gravediggers, who are just finishing their 32nd burial.

“No stopping, right?” says Edenilson Souza, 47, one of James’ workmates.

High above, several buzzards circle lazily. Block 27 is beginning to fill up with floral wreaths bearing messages such as “Rest in peace, we’ll always be together,” “We’ll miss you, relatives and friends” and “Goodbye is not forever, just a brief separation.”

The workload is so heavy that the gravediggers have to split into two groups to eat and that’s when some harsh words are exchanged among them regarding who will go first and who must wait their turn.

15:00-18:00: Insults, fights among relatives and burials in the dark

During the afternoon there are some moments of tension. The first one comes when the son of a man suspected of dying of COVID insults Edenilson.

“Idiot! Screw you!” the young man shouts after demanding that Edenilson help make his father’s grave a bit bigger. Far from becoming angry, Edenilson simply keeps quiet and leaves the area for a little while.

“It’s like that every day,” Osni de Oliveira tells EFE.

A few minutes later, a burial ends with a fistfight, when one woman goes after another one and they come to blows as family members try to intervene and pull them apart.

After two failed attempts, one of the gravediggers finds himself forced to intervene and threatens to call the police.

There is also a problem with a very large coffin that has cracked along the bottom, although wrapping some tape around it prevents an even worse problem from developing.

The pace slacks off just a bit, but there are still 10 more burials to complete, the last one only being finished in the dark.

“Sometimes we turn on the cellphone light or … we ask the hearse to light things up from the side,” James says.

18:00-19:00: An end to a grueling day.

With no more burials on Monday’s list, at 18:10 the team is done for the day. During the pandemic, they average 50-55 burials per day, with 30-32 COVID cases. On Monday, however, things were busier.

After the exhausting day, James says that there are many “negatives” about being a gravedigger, saying: “It’s sad that people don’t value (our work) but I always say that I’m not ashamed of my profession, or of what I do.”

It’s time to remove the protective garments, take a shower, return home and forget.

Until tomorrow, that is.


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