Artur Palma made a video call on the night of Friday, the 29th, to the wife of a victim of Covid-19, showed him the coffin at the cemetery door and consumed another funeral.
It is 9:30 pm when the owner of the funeral home arrives with the body of an 81-year-old man who died last Sunday, the 24th, at the car park in front of the Rio de Mouro Crematorium.
There are four relatives of the man, waiting, one of them opens a hat because it is fog and a small rain falls. The last tears are cried, the coffin is still touched inside the car in the car park, the revolt is felt by the victim having caught the disease in the hospital, by the people being on the street as if it were not happening all the days.
Artur Palma makes a whatsapp call to the widow, 69, at home, because she is also infected, shows her the coffin, lets her say goodbye, and the car passes the gate that gives access to the crematorium. The funeral ended there. These days the family will receive a pot of ashes, which they will keep in a cemetery drawer, which they have already reserved.
Is it normal for a funeral like that on a Friday at 10:00 pm? It is not normal, but now it happens, at weekends, at all hours, says Artur Palma. “This one still had four people here, many have nobody, we are the family, because the family is infected and confined at home”.
That’s why he does funerals with mass outside cemeteries, that’s why he’s done more than a dozen “with no one”, with him and another agency employee and a priest, all filmed on his cell phone. “It is the only way that people have to see. We do funerals over the internet, so to speak ”.
This is how the “exhausting days” of the funeral home are, with the months of December and especially January being “something out of this world”. In January alone, says Artur Palma, 41 funerals were held, 35 of which were victims of Covid-19. In any month before the pandemic, the average was around 15, one every two days, now there are three a day, and you have to refuse funerals.
A year ago, in the first wave of the pandemic, people started to “play with the covid” because nobody thought it was true, in the summer everything returned to normal and in the fall, with the second wave, it was still “all right”, because only older people died. And now? “Only now do people realize the dimension of what this is, but they still do not have a sense of what covid-19 is because if they had they would not leave the house”.
Artur Palma, 46, is a tired man. He no longer even remembers when he had a free weekend, he never knows when he can sleep peacefully, when his phone rings in the middle of the night to fetch a body from a residence, a home. Many people are dying at home, he warns, asserting that “in the middle of the night they call to fetch bodies”.
It’s about 9 pm on Friday when he says so. I didn’t know yet that at 5:00 am today they would call you to pick up the body of a 91-year-old man in Amadora. He does not know if he died of covid-19, but he goes with José Santos, who works with him, dressed in all protective equipment. “We enter the building and people are looking, we look like astronauts”.
“Many people are dying at home, people are afraid to go to hospitals, they prefer to stay at home, they stay there and they die. It is not covid-19 because there are no tests, ”he says.
Artur Palma worked at the mortuary of the Alfredo da Costa Maternity Hospital and 23 years ago opened the Agência Funerária Velhinho, in Amadora. José Santos has worked with him for two, there are three more employees and there are two hearses and a cold room, installed in a warehouse.
It is there that there are two dozen new coffins, it is there that the bodies are, which come out as possible. But the funeral home was not prepared for anything like that. With the swirl of deaths, in hospitals, in homes, in houses, with a capacity of the ark for five bodies, it did not arrive even if there were three more chambers. “I have nowhere to put more bodies, where do I put the bodies?”
In this “theater of war” you can do as you can, identify the body, send a photograph to the family, eliminate the funeral ritual, the wake, accompanying the body to the cemetery or crematorium, the mass , the closing of the urn.
Artur Palma says that if the body is buried, the funeral is relatively quick and that it takes cremation, sometimes more than a week, which is by far what family members prefer. And he speaks of another problem: with unemployment caused by the pandemic, people do not have the money to pay for funerals. “There are people who come to me and don’t have a cent to give. We advance everything. And when they receive Social Security money, they don’t pay either because they can’t. This is what we are going through ”.
And how do you manage this death spiral emotionally? Artur Palma has also had to bury, since the pandemic began, an aunt, a cousin, grandfather and father. He thinks for a few seconds and answers: “We are a little bit… we are not asleep… we are half asleep… I am paying a very expensive price, even a very expensive one… I never imagined going through such a thing…”
Neither does José Santos, who does not remember when he and his family had a weekend, that January was an exhausting month and that the frenzy of the living days is overwhelming.
“I don’t see my mother, I don’t see my daughters, ours end up dying of loneliness, it’s very sad”, adds the funeral director. “In December, the world fell on us and January was a terrible thing”.
It’s February? Artur Palma sees no light “at the end of the tunnel”. It was necessary to close everything, “everything closed really, in a way that there were few people on the street, to be like a month and a half, two months, to put an end to this, if not, we will not be able to get around”.
With the current official figures of the covid-19 pandemic, an average of three people are dying in Portugal every 15 minutes, 12 people every hour. Only those confirmed by covid-19.
Artur Palma does not say so. But they say the discouragement of his words, the tiredness of those who have been “half asleep” for a long time, that February may well be spent with José Santos, doing funerals by whatsapp in car parks.