This text is by Raquel Porto. It is published here under a partnership to share content between Global Voices and Agência Mural.
The act of watching over the bodies of loved ones, honoring them, burying them and cremating them is faced in different ways in different cultures since the world is world. In adverse situations, that ritual can undergo some changes that make goodbye more painful.
It was what happened with my family and it is already beginning to be a new routine in wake services in Brazil and in other countries affected by the COVID-19 pandemic. On March 19, my family lost Aunt Ester Santos Porto, 68.
Ester was born in Laranjeiras, a city of about 29,000 inhabitants in the state of Sergipe, in the northeast of the country, and moved to São Paulo in the 1970s. As a hard-working Northeast, a nurse, a jealous and struggling mother, she struggled a lot but lost a great battle against cancer.
As if it were not sad enough, the situation worsened when we realized that with one death in the midst of a pandemic, dismissal would be restricted. Each country adopted a way of dealing with wakes and burials in times of isolation by the new coronavirus. In some, no family member is allowed near the coffin.
In Brazil, in São Paulo, the Municipal Health Secretariat informed by means of a decree that wakes and burials should be restricted to 10 people in total. Wakes are now limited to one hour, and in confirmed cases of coronaviruses, the coffins must be sealed.
And so it was with my aunt, in the wake held on March 21. It was veiled in the Vila Formosa cemetery, eastern São Paulo, with an open drawer, but quickly. Few were able to say their last goodbye: of 11 brothers, only two were there. He left three children and a grandson.
An amount that could be counted on the fingers of the hands. In addition, it was not possible to be long in the room where the coffin was in the scarce hour in which it could be watched.
Vila Formosa Cemetery is the largest in São Paulo and one of the largest in Latin America. Since the start of the pandemic, officials began to wear special clothing, and due to the risk of contagion, the coffins are sealed and families have about ten minutes to say goodbye to their loved ones.
My father, and other Aunt Esther's brothers, could not be present, by choice and advice of the other relatives. They are part of the risk group for being elderly, hypertensive, diabetic or for having other immunosuppressive ills. They could not live the ritual to say goodbye, to avoid the risk of contagion.
Pandemic in Brazil
The new coronavirus, which generated the current pandemic, originated in the Chinese city of Wuhan in December 2019, spread to hundreds of countries, and recorded thousands of deaths worldwide. In Italy, one of the countries most affected by COVID-19, there were more than 8,000 dead by the end of March.
Until April 12, 2020, Brazil had registered 22 169 confirmed cases and 1223 deaths, according to data from the Ministry of Health. The first case in the country was confirmed on February 26. The federal government estimates that the peak of cases in the country should occur between May and June.
The policy adopted by Health Minister Luiz Henrique Mandetta – despite clashes with President Jair Bolsonaro – follows the recommendations of the World Health Organization (WHO), of social isolation, washing hands with soap, using gel alcohol and special care for people over 60.
The Brazilian president constantly cites concern about the economy, about the cessation of activities to comply with the quarantine, as a justification to defend what he calls vertical isolation (only people in the risk group would do isolation). Bolsonaro, even, frequented public places, such as shops, which generated crowds, which would be against the rules, and threatened to dismiss his minister.
At my house, we could not give Aunt Ester the farewell, as it should have happened with many other Brazilian families during the pandemic. The advice I give, sadder though it may seem, is that we pay tributes at a distance.
Farewell rituals are tools that help us deal with mourning. They are important to continue without feeling nostalgic. But, for a time, we will have to get used to the changes.
I keep good memories of a brave, elegant, friendly and curious aunt, because she had a brain inside a container with formaldehyde in her office. And that story is my way of honoring her. It's like Emicida: “I write like someone who sends love letters.”