Colombian coroner offers free burials to destitute Venezuelan migrants

IMAGE: CNS photo/Manuel Rueda

By Manuel Rueda

RIOHACHA, Colombia (CNS) — It’s
midafternoon and the cemetery known as People Like Us is eerily quiet.

As the corpse of Eduardo Sanchez
is removed from a white funeral car and placed in a coffin, his daughter starts
to sob and gets close to the coffin to take one last picture of her father. The
rest of Sanchez’s family watches from afar or turns away in sorrow. The stench
and sight of the badly decomposed body are too much to take in.

“He was in a morgue for
four weeks,” Sanchez’s niece, Gisangie Navarro, explains. “But we
come from Venezuela, and we did not have enough money to take him anywhere. Now
he can finally get a Christian burial.”

As hundreds of thousands of
Venezuelans migrate across South America to escape hyperinflation and food
shortages, some are dying in poverty far from home.

A small cemetery in Colombia’s
northern La Guajira department has become a haven for the corpses of these dead
migrants and is helping their bereaved families to find some peace and comfort
as they struggle to get by. The cemetery also has helped a retired coroner find
her calling, as she undertakes a task that few aid groups have contemplated.

“God has a purpose for all
of us,” says Sonia Bermudez, the coroner and founder of People Like Us cemetery. “And my job is to take care of the dead, and make sure that
everyone gets a decent burial.”

Bermudez says her interest in
working with the dead started at age 13, when her father was the security guard
in her hometown’s public cemetery. In those days, she recalls, bodies that were
not claimed by anyone were buried in large pits without coffins and often with
no clothes. Sometimes, officials put a bag over the corpses’ heads to give the
burial a small sense of dignity.

“I thought it was very
unfair how these people were buried, in comparison to folks who had families
that paid for funerals,” Bermudez says. “So eventually I decided to
get involved.”

At 15, Bermudez was assisting
the local coroner in autopsies, and she started to bury unclaimed bodies. Then,
after studying forensic sciences
in Colombia’s capital, she returned home to practice her craft. Eventually, she
started the cemetery that has become her life’s work.

“There were always bodies
in the morgue that no one was claiming,” she explains. “So, I
started to take them to a plot of land that the municipal government was not
using, and I buried them there.”

Initially, Bermudez buried
mostly homeless people who no one claimed. Then, as violence between guerilla
groups and rightwing paramilitaries engulfed her province of La Guajira, she
started to bury the corpses of war victims dumped in the desert outside her
hometown of Riohacha.

Colombia eventually became less
violent, and a 2016 peace deal between the government and the country’s main
guerilla group helped to further diminish the country’s murder rate. But
Bermudez’s cemetery is as busy as ever.

The forensic scientist, now 56,
spends most of her time now burying Venezuelan migrants who have died in
poverty in northern Colombia.

Bermudez says so far this year she
has already buried 30 Venezuelans, free of charge. After putting the dead in
simple coffins purchased by donors, she places them in rectangular cement
crypts that bear their names and are decorated with synthetic flowers.

“When these (Venezuelan)
families come to me, they are in a very precarious situation,” Bermudez
says. “Some barely have enough money for their own food, and often they
are traveling from other cities and they have nowhere to stay.”

Bermudez has had to spend her
own money to help bury the large numbers of destitute migrants who have died in
Colombia recently, but she says no one else in northern Colombia is providing a
similar service.

A separate municipal cemetery,
managed by the Catholic Church, charges fees of at least $100 for burial spaces,
and coffins start at $200. Those amounts are unaffordable for migrants, who usually
make about $5 a day.

“The priests and the
funeral homes always need to charge something,” Bermudez says. She adds
that most people at her modest cemetery are buried without a religious
ceremony, “because priests charge for that, too.”

Bermudez says she is sure that
God is helping her out in her “mission.” She recently got
construction materials from the U.N. refugee agency, UNHCR, so she built more
crypts for her cemetery. The agency also helped her cover the costs of
transporting the corpses of dead migrants to her graveyard.

“When I do this, I feel
full of peace and tranquility,” she says. “I feel that I am helping to
fulfill God’s will.”

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