- The Washington Times - Monday, June 21, 2004

CARACAS, Venezuela — Maintaining ties with the dead is a strong tradition among Venezuelans. Families commonly spend Sundays at the graves of loved ones, tidying the plots and setting out fresh flowers.

But with urban crowding and tough economic times, paying homage to the dearly departed in Caracas isn’t what it used to be.

Finding an affordable cemetery plot and paying for funeral services has become increasingly difficult, especially for the city’s impoverished majority.

Private cemeteries are expensive, and public cemeteries are close to overflowing in this urban sprawl of 5 million people in a narrow valley where middle-class residential complexes, towering apartment buildings, Soviet-style public housing and hillside slums compete for space.

And with this South America nation stuck in its worst recession in decades, tight city budgets mean neglect of the grounds and little to no security.

Delinquents and drug addicts break into tombs at night to steal jewelry or rip out metal to sell to scrap dealers. Thieves also burrow into unguarded graves.

In the eastern part of town, schoolchildren taking a shortcut home through the Petare Cemetery have to walk carefully to avoid stepping on skulls and bones.

Dozens of open coffins, crumbling tombstones and holes in mausoleums make grieving all the more difficult.

“My great-grandmother and my grandmother were buried over there,” said Luis Olivares, pointing over tall grass toward a concrete vault dismantled years ago.

Mr. Olivares, 23, doesn’t know what happened to the remains of his kin and probably never will. He says they could be among the trash and bones strewn in the weeds.

“There’s a skull here and another over there. Nobody knows who is who,” Mr. Olivares said sadly, wandering down the cemetery’s main path.

At the newer Cementerio del Este, a funeral and burial can easily top 6.4 million bolivars (a little more than $3,300). That is more than two years’ pay for a typical worker earning the minimum wage of $123 a month.

Many families can’t afford $235 for a far simpler service at the Capital Funeral Parlor in the slum called La Cota 905.

“This is the cheapest funeral parlor in the area, and sales have fallen,” said Luis Escalona, Capital’s salesman. He said the establishment carries out two or three services a week, compared with several daily a few years ago.

Capital often turns away poor families that can’t afford its fee. Those who Mr. Escalona knows are allowed to pay half up front and settle later.

“Some never return to pay the rest. It’s a risk, but that’s become part of the business,” he said.

City records indicate that more than 17,000 people die of natural causes and accidents each year, and more than 2,400 homicides were reported in 2002. But officials concede that a significant percentage of deaths are never reported to police or city offices.

Many families that show up to claim bodies at Bello Monte Morgue, the largest in Caracas, cannot afford a funeral, let alone a burial, said Dr. Carlos Mayorca, a forensic specialist.

The city often picks up the tab, but the process can be lengthy and bureaucratic. Graves provided by the city often are perched precariously on hills at the far end of El Cementerio del Sur, a huge burial ground dating to the late 1800s.

Teodamira Reyes, 65, and family members recently repaired the fenced-in tomb where her mother, son and husband rest in Cementerio del Sur. They mixed cement, patched holes and replaced a metal roof that thieves had stolen.

“We had to put a cage around it so it wouldn’t be robbed,” she said.

Others arrive too late.

A few years ago, Avilia Sotillo and her sisters came to visit a grave on the outskirts of the cemetery.

“We lost an uncle on the hill. The rains took him,” Mrs. Sotillo said.

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