In Venezuela's funeral industry, a shortage of coffins

CARACAS Mon Jun 16, 2014 9:37am EDT

Workers carry a coffin in a caskets factory in Caracas November 29, 2012.REUTERS/Carlos Garcia Rawlins

Workers carry a coffin in a caskets factory in Caracas November 29, 2012.

Credit: Reuters/Carlos Garcia Rawlins

CARACAS (Reuters) - Venezuelan funeral homes are struggling to find coffins, with production crimped by a shortage of brass, varnish and satin, complicating the process of burying the dead in one of the world's most murderous countries.

Undertakers are borrowing coffins from each other or traveling to Colombia to get hold of them.

Some are encouraging customers to have cremations so that coffins, used only for the wake, can be "recycled."

President Nicolas Maduro describes the scarcity, which has affected a gamut of products from toilet paper to church wine, as the result of an "economic war" waged by opposition saboteurs seeking to force him out of office.

Critics blame the shortages on a dysfunctional economy centered on price and currency controls enacted more than a decade ago.

The undertakers' business is buttressed by spiraling violent crimes that killed at least 11,000 people last year.

"If you're an undertaker you have to guarantee funerals happen, even if that means going wherever you have to go to borrow a coffin," said Miriam Castro, administrator at a Caracas funeral home in the El Paraiso (Paradise) district.

She and other undertakers in the neighborhood are trading coffins between themselves to meet demand, Castro said.

Cremations at Caracas' leafy Eastern Cemetery have climbed 50 percent in recent months to 12 daily, from 8, according to a cemetery official.

Castro is a regular client of the crematorium here.

"It used to be much quicker," she said. "Now you have to wait a couple of days, thanks to all the waiting bodies."

In January, the cemetery hosted the wake of Monica Spear, a popular soap star and former Miss Venezuela, who was murdered alongside her husband in a shocking reminder of the country's crime rate.

POLITICS OF DEATH

Coffin production has dropped some 50 percent in recent months, said Ricardo Guedez, member and until recently president of the National Chamber for Funeral Companies.

That's partly because manufacturers have been unable to import materials, struggling to obtain dollars because of the government's strict currency controls.

There is also a shortage of brass because of slumping output at state steel mill Sidor, which late President Hugo Chavez nationalized in 2008.

Demand for funerals is driven by one of the world's highest murder rates, which has long been Venezuelans' main gripe with the socialist government. Castro said 70 percent of the corpses her company receives are murder victims.

Many of the dead are killed in shanty-town gang fights or are victims of robberies in wealthier areas.

And few of the perpetrators are brought to justice.

Violent crime has become a central issue in Venezuela's polarized political discourse.

The government says the murder rate is falling and opposition media are sensationalizing the problem for political capital. Opposition critics insist the true murder rate is more than twice the official one.

Serious discussions about insecurity are largely drowned out by diatribes over who is to blame.

The rising cost of funeral services has become a hot-button issue, as annual inflation in Venezuela rises above 60 percent.

A state agency called the Superior Organ of the Economy is tasked with helping control inflation by ordering businesses to slash prices.

In December, Hebert Garcia Plaza, who heads the agency, appeared on state television to accuse one funeral home of "overcharging by 619 percent."

He said the outfit charged 8,280 bolivars, around $1,300 at the strongest official exchange rate, for six hours of chapel-rental whereas it should have charged 1,151 bolivars.

"We have to have some humanity here," said Garcia Plaza. "They cannot turn this business into something financial."

Jose Montes, head of a funeral home in Catia, a slum in the west of Caracas, insists he is simply trying to run a business. He has just 10 coffins on hand, but needs three times as many.

"Like anything in this country, we can't get hold of them," he said.

(Editing by Brian Ellsworth, Andrew Cawthorne and Bernadette Baum)