Reburying the dead

September 15, 2014

Guatemala City, Guatemala

By Jorge Dan Lopez


The clock had only just struck seven in the morning and the sound of heavy hammers pounding cement had already begun to interrupt the silence in Guatemala City’s General Cemetery. As the sun’s first rays dipped the graveyard in light, they cast shadows on the wall from exhumers.

A grave cleaner uses a maul to break the cover of a crypt as a fellow grave cleaner works standing on a ladder during exhumation works at the Cemetery General in Guatemala City January 29, 2014.  If a lease on a grave has expired or not been paid, grave cleaners will break open the crypts to remove and rebury the bodies.  REUTERS/Jorge Dan Lopez

The men were opening and cleaning graves after people had stopped paying the lease or the lease had expired. The bodies, or what was left of them, were pulled out one by one by the grave cleaners and placed in clear, plastic bags.

The team began breaking the crypts’ lids and bricks. After a few minutes, I glimpsed the corner of a rotten casket and, eventually, I got a distinctive view of skin, bones, and an almost-preserved face, grimacing indescribably. But the grimace did not scare or repulse me; it reminded me of the ephemerality of life.

A grave cleaner holds the mummified body of a woman during exhumation works at the Verbena cemetery in Guatemala City April 17, 2013.  Any remains that have not been claimed are packed into plastic bags, labelled and stored in mass graves.  REUTERS/Jorge Dan Lopez

By nine in the morning, the day of exhumations was over. In total, the remains of 40 bodies were removed from their graves, placed in bags and labelled with their sex and year of death, or a code to identify the crypt in which they used to reside.

Grave cleaner Harold carries a mummified corpse at the Cemetery General in Guatemala City February 5, 2013. Bodies that have been stored in the upper crypt are exposed to dry and sunny conditions which means they do not decompose and instead become mummified. REUTERS/Jorge Dan Lopez

Bags that weren’t collected by relatives were forklifted in piles and lowered into 30-metre-deep mass graves, which were then shut and secured with a lock. The grave cleaners said that before closing the pit, warlocks would sometimes retrieve bones to perform magic.

A grave cleaner carries plastic bags with the remains of exhumed and unclaimed bodies to a mass grave at the Cemetery General in Guatemala City November 27, 2012.   REUTERS/Jorge Dan Lopez

In the two years I’ve been taking pictures at the cemeteries, only once did a family request a relative’s remains from the pit. With a light-hearted manner, the grave cleaners searched for almost six hours until they found the bag.

Grave cleaner Wicho looks for a bag containing the remains of a body which is being claimed by its family inside a mass grave at the General Cemetery in Guatemala City November 29, 2012.  REUTERS/Jorge Dan Lopez

The beloved dead now shared a mass grave alongside hundreds of strangers’ remains. Their belongings and coffins were thrown down a ravine alongside pieces of cement and bricks from the graves’ broken lids. The sight made me think how easily they could be forgotten.

The workers, with nicknames such as “Coca”, “Chucky” and “Loco”, “Wicho” and “Negro”, earned little over the minimum wage, but I constantly admired their light-hearted attitude and the ease at which they carried out such challenging work.

The exhumers stared death in the face on a daily basis, yet they have learned, out of necessity, never to fear what they see in the “City of the Dead”. “Negro” once told me that nothing bad would happen to them while working there, because the dead would always protect them.

Grave cleaners place plastic bags with skeletal remains on a forklift next to a mummified body at the Verbena cemetery in Guatemala City July 22, 2013.  REUTERS/Jorge Dan Lopez

Over the next two months, they exhumed and cleaned the crypts of 2000 infants. It was shocking to see the corpses of babies, still dressed in their little outfits, whose small, white coffins turned to dust when set on the floor.

Bodies pulled from the upper crypts were often mummified, as they had been more exposed to sunlight and dry conditions and kept away from the ground’s moisture.

One comment

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Great work and story telling, I never normally comment but this is great thought provoking stuff.

Posted by AdamJoseph | Report as abusive