Colombia deacon leads funeral rites in PPE as coronavirus cases near 400,000

BOGOTA (Reuters) - Standing outside the high cemetery walls as a sharp breeze blows down from the Andes, Mauricio Castiblanco pulls on a disposable cover-all, adjusts his mask under a face shield, and snaps on latex gloves.

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He adds extras to his personal protective equipment (PPE), befitting his role as a Catholic deacon: a purple sash decorated with an embroidered red cross, a plastic bottle of holy water, and a book of funeral rites.

Castiblanco, who works at a Bogota funeral home, is getting ready to receive four hearses bearing the bodies of presumed or confirmed COVID-19 victims.

As Latin America becomes the new global hotspot for the pandemic, Colombia is set to pass 400,000 confirmed coronavirus cases on Tuesday, the eighth highest total in the world. That is despite five months of nationwide lockdown.

The disease has killed over 13,000 people in Colombia. Intensive care units (ICUs) in the capital are close to capacity.

Families have been allowed a brief wake and now Castiblanco will lead a curbside ceremony, before the hearse disappears into the cemetery. Entry is barred for all but burial workers and the dead.

“This goodbye is even more painful,” says Castiblanco, as mourners sob behind him. “This doesn’t give us time, it’s against the clock.”

The health ministry has banned the embalming of remains from confirmed and suspected COVID-19 patients. Instead, they must be cremated or buried quickly in individual tombs.

“It’s really impacted me because we did have a gentle rhythm, unhurried, but we’ve gotten to the point where we have to abandon our usual locations, our wake rooms, our chapels,” says Castiblanco. “The (number of) services is incalculable, there are so many.”

Soon there is a traffic jam of hearses and family transport. Castiblanco gathers each family for prayers, accompanied by a violinist, before he douses the vehicle in holy water.

One victim, not yet a confirmed COVID-19 death, was just 44, a relative tells Reuters.

Castiblanco says the ceremony helps families longing for usual graveside rites.

He also urges them to remember loved ones “haven’t died, they’ve just gone ahead.”

Reporting by Julia Symmes Cobb, additional reporting by Javier Andres Rojas, Editing by Rosalba O’Brien