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The cemetery that is now a mass grave

As the death toll rises following Brazil's landslides, gravediggers struggle to work fast enough to bury the dead.

Last modified: 17 Jan 2011 16:34
Photo by AFP

The death toll has reached 649 from the floods and landslides that wiped out much of Brazil's Serrana region of Rio de Janeiro state. Of those, 271 are from Teresopolis, where I have been since Wednesday night of last week.

It’s easy – too easy – to get caught up in the phrase "death toll", like it’s some abstract numbering of an algorithm. It’s not. And I was reminded when I visited the cemetery in Teresopolis.  It’s been turned into something more like a mass grave.

When we arrived, it was raining and cold. Gravediggers could not dig the holes fast enough to put in coffins. They were literally using a backhoe to speed up the process.

There was no time to put in proper gravestones with the name of the dead, or a verse from the scripture, or even the dates of birth and death. A lone cemetery worker would simply write the name of the deceased on a piece of paper that acted as a log of who was being buried.

When the coffin was dropped in the grave, it was the precious few moments family members had to say goodbye to their loved one. Then, about a dozen men quickly shoveled the dirt on top. There was no time to wait. More caskets were stacking up at the entrance. Finally, a wooden cross with a number written with black marker was stuck in the ground. And that was it. 

The gravediggers then moved on to the next gravesite.  

While I was at the cemetery Friday late afternoon it was all taking place under steady rainfall.

The process would repeat itself every 10-15 minutes. The caskets were not transported to the cemetery in a hearse. There were simply too many. So they arrived on flatbed trucks. 

Sadly, this is what it has come down to in Teresopolis.

The once charming and peaceful hilltop cemetery overlooking lush green mountain hillsides has grown so overcrowded that a judge signed a decree saying old gravesites can be unearthed to make space for the incoming dead.

The cemetery in Teresopolis, Brazil: It was a scene I will never, ever, forget.

 My report here: