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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 — 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 — 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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