ALDEA DEL REY, Spain – The wife and two children bid farewell to the husband and father at a cemetery in a small Spanish village in the region of La Mancha. Flowers and Spanish folk songs provide the only beauty in a ceremony that has always been sad, but which is now cold and soulless.
The relatives of M.R.U. cannot hug each other, they weep without solace. The deceased was a sociable man, who sang fandangos to entertain and bring joy to those close to him. He had family and friends all over Spain, but nobody could come to bid him farewell. Funerals in the era of COVID-19 have been robbed of an important tradition.
Holding a vigil for the departed, bringing them large floral wreaths and centerpieces, offering condolences to the family, accompanying them to a mass and, finally, to the funeral itself, has always been an essential ritual to start the grieving process.
The process is serviced by a multimillion-dollar business that has been overwhelmed by the hundreds of daily deaths from the epidemic gripping Spain.
M.R.U. was born in Aldea del Rey, in the province of Ciudad Real, some 230 kilometers from Madrid, 81 years ago, and he wanted to be buried alongside his parents, in familiar territory. It was the only wish his family were able to fulfill.
They were not able to choose the coffin or the flowers, and had to wait 13 agonizing days to be able to lay him to rest, four more than it took for him to become ill and die of “possible COVID-19.”
For the farewell, his closest relatives put on his favorite music, the wonderful flamenco voice of Miguel Poveda.
At least 13,897 people have died due to the new coronavirus in Spain, the country with the second highest fatality rate in the world.
At the same time, thousands more have died of other causes. All of them will have the same burial.
“We are overrun. I am so sorry, we do not have a date yet,” were phrases that were repeated on the phone every day to relatives by the company that M.R.U. was insured with to handle the funeral.
Burials “could be delayed by a week,” they said after 10 days had passed since the death.
Sometimes when the family called, some paperwork was missing, and many others, the lines were busy.
Moving a body between different Spanish autonomous regions requires, in addition to the burial license issued by a judge, a health certificate. A third of burials in Spain involve interprovincial transfers.
M.R.U.’s grave was open for 11 days while his body lay in the rooms of Madrid’s largest funeral home.
Felipe, the local gravedigger, has buried four people in the last few days, two of them a husband and wife who died of COVID-19 and who, like M.R.U., lived in Madrid and wanted to be buried in their hometown.
“It is so sad,” he says, while describing how he often sees police patrols ensuring only the permitted number of people attend the burials.
To accelerate the funeral process, the government issued a decree that shelved the minimum 24 hour period between the time of a person’s death and burial or cremation. But the reality of the situation in Spain has made that announcement redundant and even nonsensical.
As the epidemic advanced, new regulations banned wakes and funeral ceremonies and limited attendance to just three people, who must maintain a safe distance from one another to avoid catching the coronavirus. A priest or chaplain can also attend, on request.
The rules that apply to victims of the COVID-19 disease are unlike those for infectious diseases like Ebola or cholera or smallpox, although they did establish security and health measures whereby the body must be placed in a waterproof body bag and later a biodegradable coffin.
DEATHS INCREASE BY A THIRD IN FIRST MONTH
The hundreds of daily deaths from the COVID-19 are added to the 1,172 daily fatalities that were reported before the pandemic, according to the National Institute of Statistics’ figures from 2018.
Although cremation is becoming increasingly popular in Spain, in 2018, 59 percent of the deceased were buried in one of the 17,682 cemeteries spread across the country’s 8,126 municipalities, according to the latest report by the funeral trade association Panasef.
According to Panasef, Spain is home to the largest number of crematoria in Europe, with 442 in 2018, capable of carrying out 1,768 cremations in a single day.
Demand at the time was just 400 daily cremations, but the coronavirus has seen the tally skyrocket. Funeral homes simply cannot keep up.
In Madrid and elsewhere, soldiers from the Emergency Military Unit are now taking charge of the grim task of removing bodies from hospitals, leaving the transfer of corpses of those who pass away at home or in retirement communities, some of the worst hotspots for COVID-19 deaths, to the already overburdened funeral parlors.
The extent of the pile up of corpses was illustrated when authorities in Madrid – the deadliest region with at least 5,371 fatalities reported so far – set up a temporary morgue on an ice rink at a major shopping center. Then, when that filled up in a matter of days, they turned on the electricity supply to an abandoned forensic facility capable of housing 230 bodies.
And even then, funeral homes became saturated in just a few days. At the one in Mostoles, five freezer trucks have been deployed as makeshift extensions to the facility.
This week, a second ice rink in the region, in the town of Majadahonda, will take in another 440 bodies.
A funeral sector worker who spoke to EFE on condition of anonymity acknowledged that they were awaiting a new ruling from the government “because we cannot” handle so many burials.
Healthcare sources told EFE that the pile up of corpses could trigger a new health crisis.
“Mass graves will need to be dug once the morgues are completely full. The solution will be one that is socially difficult to accept, but these bodies are carrying the disease. We have no idea how long a corpse stays infected with COVID-19,” a doctor explains.
“From the public health perspective, it’s really important that these bodies are buried as soon as possible,” says an epidemiology expert.
But the secretary general of Panacea, Alfredo Gosalvez, has ruled out mass burials. The measures that are currently being taken to bury or cremate all of the deceased “should be enough,” he says.
MADRID, CAPITAL OF PAIN
“This is an unprecedented challenge. This is like a never ending 11M,” says Gosalvez, referring to the terror attacks that targeted Madrid’s rail system on March 11, 2004.
The organization claims that the funeral sector was prepared, but it could not handle such an upswing in deaths in such a short period in the same region of the country, Madrid, where the funeral bottleneck is concentrated.
Before the pandemic, the capital region had an average of 80 deaths per day. Since the end of March, that figure has multiplied by four or five.
Gosalvez believes there are two factors that have contributed to the saturation: a lack of coordination with funeral homes to set up temporary morgues and the slowdown at civil registration offices, where “they cannot cope even though they have extended the working hours” to process the death certificates.
The funeral homes have also suffered delays in obtaining protective gear that their employees require to be able to prepare the infected bodies.
“The funeral personnel are slaving away, working in 18 hour shifts. There are some who have been on the go for 18 days without rest,” the source says.
At some, “the directors and CEOs are handling the deceased themselves because they are so overwhelmed.”
Faced with this situation, Madrid parlors are offering cremations in neighboring towns and cities and have boosted their staff numbers with reinforcements from less affected regions.
There are companies that are trying to make up for the services that the new laws prevent them from providing and offer families with psychological support, virtual solutions such as electronic condolences, online reminders and streaming funerals, or the option of holding tribute ceremonies and a farewell once the current emergency is over.
Not in Madrid, however, where every service is focused on getting the bodies out of the morgues and funeral homes. There is no time for ceremonies.
THE BUSINESS OF “THE DEAD”
In Spain, there are 1,300 funeral companies, with 11,510 employees. The market has become concentrated, and today only 17 of them have an annual turnover of more than 30 million euros. Around half of these operate nationally.
Parlors in Spain turned over 1.53 billion euros in 2018, 0.13 percent of the country’s GDP, according to Panasef.
Two thirds of funeral services are covered by life insurance, a major factor on the Spanish market: some 47 percent of Spaniards have taken out a policy, according to a study by the Union of Insurers (Unespa).
When both industries are combined, they made up 0.34 percent of Spain’s GDP in 2018.
Insurance “for the dead,” as it is commonly known in Spain, covers burial and helps families with the legal proceeding after the death of a person – certificates, inheritance, pensions. It makes up 13.3 percent of a family’s overall insurance.
Two insurers, Santa Lucia and Ocaso, own 51 percent of the market. M.R.U had contracted his burial services with the former, the largest in the country (31.5 percent), which has expanded its operations to Colombia, Argentina and Portugal.
A study by the Organization of Consumers and Users (OCU) at the end of 2017 concluded that “life insurance is not profitable” for those who take it out.
“This type of policy is not recommendable for consumers, as the accumulated value of the first payments very often surpass the real cost of burial,” which cost on average 3,500 euros, or three and a half times the average monthly minimum wage in Spain.
The OCU recommended cancelling the policies unless the person was over 70 years old.
In the midst of the pandemic, the government announced that “the prices of funeral service cannot be more than before March 14, 2020,” after it was found that prices were surging due to increased demand.
“Companies that provide funeral services are not going to get rich. They are going to be able to charge for far fewer services now that the government has restricted them,” the Panasef source says.