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In Venezuela, life is undervalued, and death is overpriced

Workers carry a coffin at an undertaker's warehouse in Caracas in 2014. (Carlos Garcia Rawlins/Reuters)

CARACAS, Venezuela — “My brother was a decent man,” Julio Andrade said sadly, as he waited outside the Caracas morgue to receive his oldest sibling’s corpse.

The body of his 55-year-old brother, Rubén Darío, had been found two days earlier on a highway outside the city, after he had been kidnapped and killed.

But the family’s ordeal was not over.

“Apart from the pain, we have to deal with the cost of burial services in a dreadful situation like this one,” Andrade said.

In Venezuela, life is undervalued, and death is overpriced. According to the Venezuelan Violence Observatory, a think tank that tracks crime, there were almost 28,000 homicides in the country in 2015, with 5,250 in the capital. Caracas is the most violent big city in the world, according to an annual study by a Mexican nongovernmental group, the Citizens' Council for Public Security and Criminal Justice.

In a country where inflation is soaring toward 700 percent and the economy shrank 10 percent last year, citizens are struggling to pay for food, medicine and other necessities. With a scarcity of many goods and a shriveled national currency, everything has become more expensive. Burials are no exception.

Protesters in Venezuela were met by police as they vented frustration about the economy and demanded a referendum to recall president Nicolas Maduro. (Video: Reuters)

Venezuela’s economy is heavily dependent on oil, and the country imports most goods. But with prices recently as low as $39 a barrel for domestic crude, there's not enough money available to import the raw materials needed to make caskets. The resulting shortage has driven up the price.

“I just spent all my savings on this funeral,” Julian Hurtado said during his father’s wake at a funeral parlor in eastern Caracas. “I’m left without any money now.”

To organize a decent wake and burial, a family needs at least 400,000 bolivars — roughly $400 at the black-market exchange rate, which reflects the price of goods for most Venezuelans. That might not seem expensive to Americans or Europeans, but it is an astronomical price in Venezuela, given that the monthly minimum wage is 15,000 bolivars, or about $15.

Carlos, who works at a funeral parlor in eastern Caracas, said the price of a burial varied depending on the cemetery, with a public cemetery charging about 240,000 bolivars, or $240, while a private one might ask as much as 450,000 bolivars, or $450. In addition, he said, the wake could cost 215,000 bolivars, or about $215. He spoke on the condition that his last name not be used because he feared losing his job.

Even inside the morgue, bodies have a price. It’s an open secret that workers take advantage of the situation at the Caracas morgue, which has been overwhelmed as the homicide rate has risen. Families can be charged a "fee" of up to 10,000 bolivars, or $10, to speed up the processing, according to Vanessa Mosquera, a former forensic dentist at the morgue.

Officials at the morgue declined to comment.

When told that it would take longer than expected for the morgue to process his brother’s body, Andrade exploded in frustration. “This is pure influence peddling,” he said.

Because of the economic strains, some Venezuelans have decided to hold wakes at home. Rusbelys Hernández said that when her mother died, her uncle borrowed money for services. “Even after asking for money, we didn’t have enough to pay for a funeral parlor, so we did it here at home,” she said.

Other people are choosing to just skip the wake.

“The wake is very expensive,” said Esperanza, who runs a funeral parlor in Petare, a slum in eastern Caracas, and spoke on the condition that her last name not be used, fearing she could lose her job. “The casket alone costs 100,000 bolivars. This is why people are choosing to bury their family members without offering a wake.”

She said that because of shortages, she no longer could obtain coffee, sugar or milk to offer to mourners during wakes.

In El Cercado, one of the cheapest cemeteries in the city, burials are often delayed by three days because of the high demand and the lack of staff. Many businesses are struggling with shortages of personnel because employees choose to work in the informal economy rather than for a fixed salary, whose value is rapidly eaten up by inflation.

The delays at the cemetery force funeral parlors to charge extra so that the remains can be maintained for several days without decomposing.

“This adds to the total cost of the service, and customers complain,” Esperanza said. But she said her business is going through a tough time, too.

It is operating at a loss because many people can’t pay their bills. “Once the body is buried, it is very difficult to receive the payment,” Esperanza said.

“However, under these circumstances, there’s not much that we can say to our clients," she said. "We are living through difficult times.”