Cardboard coffins: Venezuelans bear high cost of dying

Saturday, August 13, 2016

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MARACAY, Venezuela (AFP) — With food and medicine short, life is hard in Venezuela — and death is hard too.

The country’s situation is so acute that families are burying their loved ones in cardboard coffins.

The more well off ones can hire a casket for a few hours, just for the funeral.

A lack of materials and soaring inflation fueled by an economic crisis are making funerals a costly business.

"It is more expensive to die here than to stay alive," says Funeral Director Ronald Martinez, in the northern city of Maracay.

Miriam Navarro had to borrow money from her neighbours after her brother died a month ago.

"I felt so depressed. I didn’t have all the money the funeral parlour was asking for," she says.

"If it hadn’t been for people in my community, I would have had to bury him in the yard."

The 66-year-old housewife spoke to
AFP in the half-built home where she lives in the north-eastern town of Maracay.

With the help from neighbours, she bought a cheap fibreboard coffin from Martinez.

Sobbing, she remembers having the same difficulties six years ago when one of her sons was shot.

"I couldn’t afford to bury him either," she says.

"Even if the funeral home trusts you, you have to have the cash ready to pay straight away or they’ll take the body out and keep the box."


Venezuelans used to favour brass coffins as a cheaper alternative to wood.

But the current crisis changed that. Two years ago the price of oil — Venezuela’s crucial export — collapsed.

Factories in the country were previously turning out hundreds of tonnes of brass every month.

That has now fallen to as little as 60 tonnes, says Juan Carlos Fernandez, director of the National Chamber of Funeral Businesses.

"We have had to resort to secondary markets and that drives up costs," he says.

The cost of the cheapest funeral service has increased by about 60 times, to some 280,000 bolivars.

The minimum wage in Venezuela is 33,000 bolivars — about US$50 by the official exchange rate.

Five years ago a coffin cost 720 bolivars. Now that is the price of a loaf of bread.

For no less than 55,000 bolivars a family can buy a fibreboard coffin. Or they can rent one for 25,000.

"This kind is cheaper and no one notices that it is not made of wood or is second-hand," Martinez says.

"I change the interior and sometimes I repaint it."


Elio Angulo reckons renting out coffins breaches hygiene regulations. He makes "bio-urns" out of corrugated cardboard in the north-eastern town of Barquisimeto.

These biodegradable containers can hold a body, or ashes for the many families who opt for cremation to avoid the cost of a cemetery plot.

He has seen families bring bodies in bags to the crematorium because they cannot afford a casket.

That is another humiliation for citizens who are already suffering the daily grind of queuing for hours to buy food.

President Nicolas Maduro’s opponents blame his economic management for the crisis. He says it is a capitalist conspiracy.

Angulo’s cardboard coffin costs 50,000 bolivars. He says it can hold up to 125 kilos (275 pounds) and is stronger than the medium-density fibreboard used for other cheap coffins.

"It is meant for cremation but can also be used for burials. It offers a solution for a country in crisis," he says.

"It is economical and accessible to Venezuelans who do not have enough money to get by" when a relative passes away, he adds.

"Nowadays, dying is making a lot of people poor."

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