A smell of diesel is spreading in the largest cemetery in Latin America: it comes from the generators that turn on the searchlights for night burials, in the face of the incessant influx of bodies of COVID-19 victims.
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Gravediggers who have worked for 30 years in this Sao Paulo cemetery called Vila Formosa do not remember having seen over the decades more than a dozen burials at night.
But what was very exceptional before the pandemic is becoming the rule, with the explosion in the number of victims of the coronavirus, which has killed more than 360,000 in Brazil.
In the 22 municipal cemeteries of Sao Paulo, the most populous city in the country, no less than 600 graves are dug every day, including 200 in Vila Formosa, where the number of excavators had to be doubled.
Six machines are in use now, compared to three in May 2020, at the height of the first wave, when the average was around sixty graves daily.
The town hall hired more staff and mobilized more vehicles to transport the coffins.
With 45 hearses insufficient, the coffins are now crammed into simple minibuses.
Several local media reported the use of school transport minibuses for the transfer of bodies, information denied by the municipality.
More than 300 burials per day
“We try not to get too emotional, but it’s so sad, there are so many deaths and it has been going on for so long,” laments one of the gravediggers, removing his big green gloves at the end of his working day.
The shift change takes place at 6 p.m. Eight gravediggers dressed in white overalls replace their colleagues, to work until 10 p.m.
They are used to the presence of photographers, who come to immortalize the shocking images of one of the symbolic places of the hecatomb caused by the virus in Brazil.
The gravediggers have almost all been vaccinated, but according to them COVID-19 has affected the administrative staff of the cemetery more than those who work in the open.
Before the first burial of the night, they gather in a circle around the tomb and meditate for a minute with their heads bowed and their hands behind their backs.
But the sound of the shovels does not take long to disturb the silence. “Is there no family?” Asks a gravedigger. “You can bury it,” replies another, the death certificate in hand, in the cool 16 degrees of this southern autumn evening.
Shortly after, a minibus arrives with another coffin. This time, a group of relatives is present around the tomb where a 57-year-old man will be buried. His card says he died of COVID-19.
The deceased’s children request that a green and yellow jersey be placed on the coffin. “It’s the only thing we can do for them,” says one of the gravediggers, visibly moved.
Four of his colleagues begin to cover the coffin with shovelfuls of red earth, and the Brazilian-colored jersey disappears in seconds.
More than 1.5 million souls rest in the cemetery of Vila Formosa, in these rows of graves that stretch as far as the eye can see over 750,000 m2.
Last month, 105 burials took place in a single day, three times the average before the epidemic.
Across the city’s cemeteries, an average of 325 people have been buried each day in recent weeks, with a peak of 426 burials on March 30.
The gravediggers of Vila Formosa estimate that 26 lots were used in 12 months, whereas it would normally take more than two years to fill all that space.
“For the moment, there is still room, but if it continues at this rate, we do not know until when”, concludes one of them.