MEXICO CITY – The family of Manuel Briseño knows how they would have mourned the 78-year-old, who died Tuesday of the new coronavirus: a big funeral with the extended family, an extended mourning period and a burial at a Mexico City cemetery next to the grave of his wife of 49 years, Consuelo García.
The family got literally none of that. Under health guidelines, they rushed to cremate Briseño’s remains, and only eight relatives gathered to mourn him in a private ceremony, the family said Thursday.
The pandemic has obliterated Mexico’s deeply held tradition of “velorios,” in which mourners — often entire neighborhoods — gather around a casket and pray, sit quietly, or console family members
It was the end of a trail of indignities. Manuel's son Gustavo Briseño said ambulance drivers had charged the family several times their usual rate to transfer his father to the hospital when he was still alive. The father worked as an Uber driver and the son as a street vendor. Neither had money to spare.
“They take advantage of your pain to make money,” Gustavo said. “While they normally charge 6,000 pesos ($250), now they want 35,000 pesos ($1,400). It doesn’t make sense.”
“We are vendors, and now that everything is locked down there is no work, but I managed to round up enough money to pay,” Gustavo said.
Once Manuel died, the indignities continued. Doctors told the family his remains should be cremated quickly.
Under health guidelines, authorities encourage the quick handling of bodies of those who die of COVID-19 and its complications, either burial or cremation, which is quicker to arrange. The recommendations have since been tweaked to ensure evidence of possible crimes isn't erased.
With help from a funeral home, the family picked up Briseño's body Wednesday morning.
The family then spent six hours waiting outside the busy crematorium in San Nicolas Tolentino, on Mexico City's east side, to receive his ashes.
Due to social distancing restrictions, only his son Gustavo and his wife Leticia Pinera Santana were allowed inside the gates to collect the ashes.
From there, they took the urn of ashes to his home, where they sat on an impromptu altar along with white flowers and photos of him and his deceased wife.
There were only eight mourners, all keeping at least a meter away from each other. Some wept silently, while others sat lost in thought.
The family is Catholic, and would have liked traditional prayers, a mass and a funeral.
“It is terrible that because of this disease, we cannot uphold our beliefs and our traditions,”said Gustavo, his son.
“Here, the custom is that when someone dies, everyone comes to show their support, emotionally and financially,” he said. “Normally there would have been 100 people here, instead of the eight who are here now.”
And even among the eight, no one exchanged the usual hugs that accompany deaths.
“It was hard, because it is precisely at these moments that you need closeness, and now you can't,” noted Gustavo.
The change has been felt all across Latin America. Velorios, the informal funerals, are no longer allowed in Ecuador, Bolivia, Colombia, Argentina and Guatemala, while in El Salvador the normally day-long affairs are limited to two hours.