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No cemeteries or power. The difficulties of burying the dead after Maria

Without phones, relatives must walk to police stations to report deaths in Puerto Rico. Without power, funeral homes cannot hold bodies or wakes
2 Oct 2017 – 6:34 PM EDT

In photos: The complicated task of burying a relative in Puerto Rico after Hurricane Maria

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LARES, Puerto Rico - David died on Sept. 20, the same day Hurricane Maria hammered Puerto Rico. Maybe it was a stroke. His mother and step-father tried to save him, to no avail.

They could not call anyone because their telephone was down. They carried him into a car, but the roads were blocked by fallen trees and light poles. And still they did not give up.

They stopped and put him on the roadside. They tried mouth to mouth resuscitation, even as rain pounded them. But he was dead.

Thirteen hours passed before the funeral home could pick up the body of the 35-year-old-man. Authorities learned about his death after his stepfather walked one hour to the Lares police station.

“The family did everything possible to save the son,” said Sgt. Omar Roman, head of homicide, who talked to the stepfather and then went to the home to gather more information.

Juan Lopez, owner of the Lopez Funeral Home, arrived later at the home. He transported the body,, already decomposing, to the Forensic Sciences Institute in San Juan, a 90-minute drive. “I found his mother suffering. The boy's body was on the bed, in his underwear.”

And that was a quick case. Roman said that in the nearby town of Utuado, the bodies of three women remain trapped in their homes, buried under a mudslide since the day Maria struck. Recovery has been impossible because of fears of more mudslides.

“Everyone who works there is in danger,” said Roman.

Public Security Secretary Hector Pesquera said many other parts of the island have the same problem. He added that the lack of electricity also means that many funeral homes cannot keep the bodies in their cold storage or host their wakes.

Many of the bodies are therefore being sent to the Forensic Sciences institute in the island's capital. “The are being kept there until their relatives can take them,” Pesquera said.

Relatives of the dead face still another problem: Obtaining the legal papers required to bury them. Many government offices remain closed, although some municipalities have stopped requiring the documents.

"The cemetary cannot be used again"

Only about 10 people, including children and grandchildren, were allowed to attend the burial Thursday of 104-year-old Ana Roman Lugo. The Lares municipal cemetery, the only one in town, was closed by the Environmental Health Department after Maria. The rest of Lugo's relatives and friends prayed outside the cemetery.

Its new wing, opened in the 1970s, was destroyed. The soil slid under the powerful rains and shattered a road that runs through it. Urns came out of their niches, some tombstones shifted position and others broke. Authorities fear new earth slides could shift the coffins into a nearby creek and create a serious public health issue.

Mudslides hit the new section of the cemetery after heavy rains in May of 2013. “But now there's more damage – practically half the cemetery,” said Marilia Arce Gonzalez, deputy mayor of Lares, a municipality with 34,000 residents.

Pedro Rodriguez' mother in law is buried in the new part of the cemetery. “My wife went and she was not allowed to go in to look at the tomb,” he said. She had not been told when she could enter. She said that the smell of death hung over the cemetery on Wednesday.

“The cemetery cannot be used again,” said Arce Gonzalez. Officials are now searching for another field to rebury the 3,000 dead impacted by Maria, a temporary cold storage for those bodies and space to hold the new dead.

For now, Lares Mayor Roberto Pagan has negotiated with his counterpart in San Sebastian, 20 minutes away, to bury the Lares dead there.

A space in his pantheon

Juan Lopez said the only service his funeral home can offer with confidence is to transport bodies to the nearest crematorium in Arecibo, a 40-minute drive, or to the Forensic Sciences Institute. Without electricity, he can't do much more.

And he's already decided to make some concessions. “The relatives already come in anguished, because they don't know if they can be buried or if they have enough cash to pay for the funeral,” Lopez said. “For those people, we'll take care of them without any kind of payment. After this is all over, we'll see.”

The biggest funeral home in Lares, the Salcedo Funeral Home, is doing better. Owner Luis Salcedo has a generator and can host wakes, but only until 6 pm and not until his usual midnight closing.

But he also faced the same limitations as the rest of the funeral homes: a place to bury the dead.

But he also faced the same limitations as the rest of the funeral homes: a place to bury the dead.

He had a funeral scheduled for Saturday. Relatives did not have a plot in the affected part of the cemetery, and they didn't want a cremation. So Salcedo offered them a spot in his own pantheon.

“When we go back to normal they will ask for a license to transfer the body to their own place,” he said, adding that he does not know when Lares will recover from Maria.

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