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The Covid-19 pandemic and Latin American cemeteries

Having seen the shocking images of coffins piled up in the streets of Guayaquil, Ecuador, we need to ask ourselves to what extent dead disposal infrastructures in cities are prepared for the impact of pandemics. Christien Klaufus1 explains how Latin American metropolises deal with high death rates in cemetery governance. They can offer some relevant policy lessons, both positive and negative.


The Netherlands does not have any law that prescribes reserve capacity for burial places in emergency situations. Even though we don't know how long the dead continue to carry the Covid-19 virus, they are buried in regular cemeteries, most of which are located within the built environment. Responsibility for drawing up emergency plans in situations like these lies with the municipality, but doing so is not even mandatory.

In Latin America, various municipalities have learned the hard way how to deal with their dead during an epidemic. Where the dead should be buried, and how, is often laid down in regulations. In addition to Covid-19 and, before that, the disastrous Spanish Flu and yellow fever epidemics, government authorities have faced high numbers of casualties following natural disasters or violence, resulting in numerous burials in very little time. This is particularly problematic in areas where people live in high densities, such as Latin America’s megacities.


Keeping the dead at a distance

Knowledge in the field of urban hygiene and public health started to increase in the mid-18th century. With it came a rational perspective on how the dead should be dealt with. Burials in church buildings were forbidden and new burial places were created outside of cities, first in Europe and later in Latin America. Yet, cities rapidly grew around the new cemeteries and governors again faced the question of whether cemeteries are ‘dangerous’ or not. As a result, several Latin American countries have laws that stipulate that infectious corpses must be cremated to prevent the infection from spreading. In everyday reality, however, these laws are useless if the urban infrastructures of dead disposal cannot cope with the number of deaths. To illuminate the importance of these infrastructures, I offer three examples.


Practice in Buenos Aires

At the end of the 19th century, Buenos Aires suffered immensely from the yellow fever epidemic, and on some days, had to bury over 600 people. New burial places were founded all over the city. Due to lessons learned then, in the current crisis caused by Covid-19, the dead in Buenos Aires should formally be cremated. However, this would put severe pressure on the limited capacity of the only municipal crematorium that the city has. Moreover, the poor quality of the crematorium, which emits thick, black smoke, could result in other public health risks. How feasible are such regulations, when the capacity to enforce them is absent?


Practice in Bogotá

Bogotá, which has almost nine million inhabitants, is an example of a metropolis that keeps accurate records of its dead. Not only does the city keep track of the capacity of the four public and dozens of private cemeteries, policy makers have also developed growth scenarios, which the authorities can use to steer policy.

In the late 1990s, corpses were piled up waiting to be buried due to the extensive Colombian armed conflict. In 2006, Bogotá opened a large public cemetery with a capacity of over 28,000 burial niches, most of which could only be rented for 4 years, in response to severe grave shortages. As a result, public burial places are now required to have at least 10% reserve capacity at all times. When this reserve capacity is no longer available, the cemetery has to be extended. The question is, however, where to find suitable land?


Practice in Lima

Lima, another Latin American metropolis with nine million inhabitants, is a city with a complete lack of overview on cemetery governance and dead disposal infrastructures. After the administrative decentralisation of 2002 each of the 50 districts started taking care of its own public facilities in its own way. As a result, poor districts have too few burial places. People are forced to dig informal graves themselves, right next to the informal settlements they also built themselves.

In addition, public cemeteries are poorly managed. Diseases like Zika and dengue spread in these cemeteries as mortuary rituals include placing fresh flowers in water bottles, which are hotbeds for mosquitos. The Peruvian Ministry of Health is trying to enforce new rules that forbid the use of fresh flowers in water at cemeteries. Yet, habits are hard to break. Besides, the government has long neglected poor peoples’ burial places and practices. In the current corona crisis, we can see authorities struggling to regain control over the city’s dead disposal infrastructures.


Burial-land planning is crucial

Public cemeteries in Latin American cities have suffered from a severe lack of government interest everywhere. The current pandemic shows the importance of maintaining affordable and decent graves for those most in need. In spite of this need, in many megacities burial land has rapidly been converted into parks, squatted illegally, or sold to real estate developers.


Poorly managed dead disposal infrastructures can result not only in emotional suffering, but also in public health risks. Let us recall that many cemeteries were built in response to disasters or epidemics. In some cases, pathogens in the cemetery caused more deaths, resulting in the need for more burial space. By carefully monitoring the burial capacity for the future, combined with good cemetery governance and behavioural regulations, Latin American authorities can prevent cemeteries from becoming another risk factor during the crisis. Likewise, Dutch and other European authorities could begin by considering whether they should begin expanding and preparing emergency plans for their dead disposal infrastructures too, as the Covid-19 pandemic has pointed out the vulnerabilities in all systems.

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1Christien Klaufus a researcher and lecturer of the University of Amsterdam Faculty of Humanities’ Centre for Latin American Research and Documentation (CEDLA) and a member of the Faculty of Social and Behavioural Sciences’ Centre for Urban Studies. You can find an academic article of hers on Colombian deathscape politics here.

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