The poor live with the dead in Peru neigh­bor­hood


When Manuel Gar­cia opens his house door near Peru’s cap­i­tal, his neigh­bors rest in a macabre tableau of tombs and wall crypts amid flies buzzing around freshly dug graves.

Gar­cia re­sides in one of the two im­pov­er­ished neigh­bor­hoods that share space with the sprawl­ing, cen­tury-old Santa Rosa ceme­tery in Cal­lao, out­side Lima.

Some 2,000 fam­i­lies live in mod­est homes that blend with the mor­bid land­scape of the burial site, larger than four soc­cer pitches.

A tomb marked with the re­mains of Zeno­bio Zea, who died in 1979, is in the mid­dle of the stairs lead­ing to one of the slums.

Res­i­dents have no choice but to look at tombs on their walks to school, the bak­ery or the bus stop. Chil­dren play in a park next to the dead.

Gar­cia’s win­dow has a view to one the walls con­tain­ing niched re­mains in the illegal ne­crop­o­lis. He has lived for two years just five me­ters (15 feet) away from the de­ceased.

“We aren’t afraid, but we haven’t got­ten used to the strong smell or the flies that go into the kitchen,” Gar­cia said.

The mu­nic­i­pal author­i­ties of Cal­lao have shut­tered the ceme­tery due to public health con­cerns.

But with a skele­ton bud­get, the mayor is left with the co­nun­drum of what to do with 20,000 tombs and how to lock it down to pre­vent more buri­als.

“It’s a threat to public health and peo­ple run the risk of an epi­demic,” said Aldo Lama, di­rec­tor of a Cal­lao health agency that has asked for the ceme­tery’s clo­sure for lack of health and safety stan­dards since 1998.

Bad Stench

The place smells of liquor and trash while dog fe­ces lit­ter some paths.

Leav­ing flow­ers or notes for many of the dead re­quires the agility of an ac­ro­bat: some of the niche walls stack 10 tomb spa­ces on top of each other.

Some be­lieve shady things are done to the bod­ies.

“They traf­fic the dead, sell them to univer­sity,” said a woman who sells candy around the ceme­tery, look­ing sus­pi­ciously to her left and right.

“Don’t ask my name. No­body can talk here. Ev­ery­body is afraid of the brick­lay­ers and the gravedig­gers.”

The ceme­tery has grown so much that it can be hard find­ing a loved one’s grave.

“They let the ceme­tery grow as they wish,” said a woman who was search­ing for her fa­ther’s tomb for a half hour to lay a flower on his birth­day.

Cheap Graves

The ceme­tery emerged in 1912 on a hill known as a La Regla. As Lima ex­panded, peo­ple be­gan to oc­cupy the empty lots around the ceme­tery, mix­ing with the crypts, which were also in­creas­ing.

For the poor, the Santa Rosa ceme­tery is the most af­ford­able op­tion. A tomb can cost be­tween US$3,000 and US$5,000 at a pri­vate grave site, and up to US$1,000 at a mu­nic­i­pal ceme­tery.

A com­pany named Taboada charges up to US$250 for a fi­nal rest­ing place at the Santa Rosa ceme­tery, ac­cord­ing to the author­i­ties.

Doyle Costa, a Cal­lao mu­nic­i­pal of­fi­cial, said the com­pany has no per­mit and has been ac­cused of public health vi­o­la­tions.

“But no­body knows who they are,” Costa said.

Author­i­ties have closed a chapel where a man with a Bi­ble was charg­ing peo­ple for fu­neral ser­vices.

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