The Everyday Desecration Of Sao Paulo’s Cemeteries

Why can't Brazil's largest city keep its graveyards clean?

Desecration in a holy place for so many families in Sao Paulo
Desecration in a holy place for so many families in Sao Paulo
Felipe Souza

SÃO PAULO â€" José Francisco Pinheiro, 67, and his younger sister Anita have come to the Saudade cemetery in eastern São Paulo’s to light a candle and clean the photograph on their brother’s grave. To do so, however, they first have to navigate a 200-meter long pile of garbage containing pieces of broken tombstones, empty bottles, underwear and even the remains of a toilet.

Nearby, at this cemetary in the São Miguel Paulista district, two workmen are filling a pit with garbage and old bits of concrete they'd piled on their small truck. Twenty minutes later, the pair repeats the process.

The same scenes take place in other cemeteries we visited across São Paulo. In a northern suburb, the piles of garbage and wood sometimes reach one-meter high between the graves.

The only thing that prevents the situation from being even worse are homeless people who have been sleeping in the cemetery, and offer to clean tombstones and communal areas in exchange for donations.

"Some of the visitors also help, and the cemetery’s employees find that bad," says Jorge Filipe, 21. He says he accepts "clothes, food, anything" for his help. Filipe said the busiest time of year is in the lead-up to All Saints’ Day (Nov. 1) and All Souls’ Day (Nov. 2), cleaning up to 20 graves per day.

Other homeless people who live here say the employees attack them, something the cemetery’s office denies. They sleep along the wall, and sometimes even on the tombstones.

Vistors say the cemetery was a lot cleaner around the holidays, when local authorities created a task force to spruce it up. Now it's back to being largely neglected. "A few days ago I took a gravedigger to show him a pile of bones somewhere. He just took it all and chucked it out," says Arminda Fernanda Moreira, 51.

Here and there in the cemetery, some graves are open, with no warning or protection whatsoever. Most of them are encircled by swarms of mosquitoes attracted by the smell of decomposition.

The Araçá cemetery, in the center of São Paulo, famous for its sculptures and for the celebrities buried there, is also gaining a bad reputation â€" in this case due to skyrocketing reports of thefts.

Vera Lucia de Matos, a 70-year-old lawyer, says bandits stole the plates, the door and the vase holder of her father’s grave. "Once you step inside the cemetery, there’s no security anymore," she says. "The most remote parts are completely abandoned."

Others say robbers invade the premises early in the morning and throw their plunder over the outer wall to their accomplices. To remedy the situation, local authorities said they would build a kennel for guard dogs.

But there might be an easier solution: in its report in June, the local accounting office revealed that the number of people employed to maintain the cemeteries was insufficient. Perhaps what's really needed is nothing but a few extra hands.

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What It Means When The Jews Of Germany No Longer Feel Safe

A neo-Nazi has been buried in the former grave of a Jewish musicologist Max Friedlaender – not an oversight, but a deliberate provocation. This is just one more example of antisemitism on the rise in Germany, and society's inability to respond.

At a protest against antisemitism in Berlin

Eva Marie Kogel


BERLIN — If you want to check the state of your society, there's a simple test: as the U.S. High Commissioner for Germany, John Jay McCloy, said in 1949, the touchstone for a democracy is the well-being of Jews. This litmus test is still relevant today. And it seems Germany would not pass.

Incidents are piling up. Most recently, groups of neo-Nazis from across the country traveled to a church near Berlin for the funeral of a well-known far-right figure. He was buried in the former grave of Jewish musicologist Max Friedlaender, a gravesite chosen deliberately by the right-wing extremists.

The incident at the cemetery

They intentionally chose a Jewish grave as an act of provocation, trying to gain maximum publicity for this act of desecration. And the cemetery authorities at the graveyard in Stahnsdorf fell for it. The church issued an immediate apology, calling it a "terrible mistake" and saying they "must immediately see whether and what we can undo."

There are so many incidents that get little to no media attention.

It's unfathomable that this burial was allowed to take place at all, but now the cemetery authorities need to make a decision quickly about how to put things right. Otherwise, the grave may well become a pilgrimage site for Holocaust deniers and antisemites.

The incident has garnered attention in the international press and it will live long in the memory. Like the case of singer-songwriter Gil Ofarim, who recently claimed he was subjected to antisemitic abuse at a hotel in Leipzig. Details of the crime are still being investigated. But there are so many other incidents that get little to no media attention.

Photo of the grave of Jewish musicologist Max Friedlaender

The grave of Jewish musicologist Max Friedlaender

Jens Kalaene/dpa/ZUMA

Crimes against Jews are rising

Across all parts of society, antisemitism is on the rise. Until a few years ago, Jewish life was seen as an accepted part of German society. Since the attack on the synagogue in Halle in 2019, the picture has changed: it was a bitter reminder that right-wing terror against Jewish people has a long, unbroken history in Germany.

Stories have abounded about the coronavirus crisis being a Jewish conspiracy; meanwhile, Muslim antisemitism is becoming louder and more forceful. The anti-Israel boycott movement BDS rears its head in every debate on antisemitism, just as left-wing or post-colonial thinking are part of every discussion.

Jewish life needs to be allowed to step out of the shadows.

Since 2015, the number of antisemitic crimes recorded has risen by about a third, to 2,350. But victims only report around 20% of cases. Some choose not to because they've had bad experiences with the police, others because they're afraid of the perpetrators, and still others because they just want to put it behind them. Victims clearly hold out little hope of useful reaction from the state – so crimes go unreported.

And the reality of Jewish life in Germany is a dark one. Sociologists say that Jewish children are living out their "identity under siege." What impact does it have on them when they can only go to nursery under police protection? Or when they hear Holocaust jokes at school?

Germany needs to take its antisemitism seriously

This shows that the country of commemorative services and "stumbling blocks" placed in sidewalks as a memorial to victims of the Nazis has lost its moral compass. To make it point true north again, antisemitism needs to be documented from the perspective of those affected, making it visible to the non-Jewish population. And Jewish life needs to be allowed to step out of the shadows.

That is the first thing. The second is that we need to talk about specifically German forms of antisemitism. For example, the fact that in no other EU country are Jewish people so often confronted about the Israeli government's policies (according to a survey, 41% of German Jews have experienced this, while the EU average is 28%). Projecting the old antisemitism onto the state of Israel offers people a more comfortable target for their arguments.

Our society needs to have more conversations about antisemitism. The test of German democracy, as McCloy called it, starts with taking these concerns seriously and talking about them. We need to have these conversations because it affects all of us. It's about saving our democracy. Before it's too late.

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