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Having seen the shocking images of the coffins piled up in Italy on the internet, we need to ask ourselves whether we and the rest of the world are prepared for the considerable impact of the coronavirus epidemic. Christien Klaufus explains how metropolises in Latin America have been preparing their burial places for an epidemic for a while now. Perhaps we could learn something from them.

Burial niches in Medellín, Colombia

The Netherlands does not have any law that prescribes reserve capacity for burial places in emergency situations. Moreover, most burial sites are located within the built environment, even though we don't know how long the dead continue to carry the virus. Responsibility for drawing up an emergency plan lies with government bodies and municipal authorities, but it is not mandatory.

In Latin America, various municipalities have learned the hard way how to deal with their dead during an epidemic and where they should be buried, and this is often laid down in regulations. In addition to epidemics, government authorities have also been faced with high numbers of casualties following natural disasters or violence, resulting in numerous burials in very little time.

CUS scientist Christien Klaufus has researched practices in relation to burial places in Peru, Colombia, Chile and Argentina. These last three countries have a law that stipulates that infectious corpses must be cremated to prevent the infection from spreading.

Keeping the dead at a distance

Knowledge in the field of hygiene and public health started to increase in Europe halfway through the 18th century, and with it came a rational perspective on how the dead should be dealt with. Burials in church buildings were forbidden and new burial places were created outside of cities at a rapid pace. Since then, these cities have grown around the burial places again. As a result, we are once again faced with the question of whether our burial places constitute a public health risk.

Practice in Buenos Aires

At the end of the 19th century, Buenos Aires was suffering from the yellow fever epidemic, and on some days, had to bury over 600 dead people. New burial places were springing up like mushrooms. In the current crisis, victims in this city should be cremated. However, this would put severe pressure on the limited capacity of the crematoria. Moreover, the poor quality of these crematoria, many of which emit thick, black smoke, could result in other public health risks.

Practice in Bogotá

At the start of this century, Bogotá built a large public burial place with a capacity of over 28,000 burial niches, most of which could only be rented for 4 years. Colombian public burial places are now required to have at least 10% reserve capacity at all times, such as in the form of graves with short-term contracts. As soon as this reserve capacity is no longer available, a new burial place must be built.

Bogotá, which has almost nine million inhabitants, is also an example of a metropolis that keeps accurate records of its dead. Not only do they keep track of the capacity of the four public and dozens of private burial places, they have also developed growth scenarios, which the municipal authorities can use to steer policy.

Niches with urns in Bogotá.

Practice in Lima

Lima, another metropolis with nine million inhabitants, is a great example of a city with a complete lack of an overview. The administrative decentralisation of 2002 resulted in a district system, with each of the 50 districts taking care of its own public facilities in its own way. As a result, poor districts have too few burial places and people are forced to dig informal graves themselves, right next to the houses they also built themselves. Mosquitoes that spread Zika and dengue, causing epidemics, thrive in these districts.

In Lima, formal burial places have signs stating that fresh flowers in water are forbidden, to combat the spread of Zika mosquitoes. The Ministry of Health is trying to change the behaviour of surviving relatives, but habits are hard to break and the government has no control over informal burial places. In the current corona crisis, we can see that our government is having similar difficulties trying to make us aware of our risky behaviour.

Burial place in Lima, built by the residents themselves.

Planning is crucial

What have we learned from the examples of burial place policy in Latin American metropolises? Poorly regulated logistics for burial plot allocation can result not only in emotional suffering, but also in public health risks. Many large burial places in cities all over the world were built in response to a disaster or epidemic. In some cases, these then became the cause of more deaths. By carefully monitoring the existing capacity, combined with tight logistics and behavioural regulations, we can prevent burial places from becoming another risk factor during the crisis.

About Christien Klaufus

Christien Klaufus is affiliated with the Faculty of Humanities' Latin American Research and Documentation Centre (CEDLA) as a lecturer-researcher and is a member of the Faculty of Social and Behavioural Sciences' Centre for Urban Studies.

Dr. ir. C.J. (Christien) Klaufus

Faculty of Humanities