Father Edduar, a Catholic priest dressed for mass, leaves the building to greet the family members who have come to pay their last respects – according to national rules, each group is limited to five people or less. The driver opens the trunk to reveal a simple wooden coffin. Standing behind the hearse, under a shaded carport, the mourners keep a distance. Some wear masks, even gloves. Hugs and kisses are a rare sight.
From start to finish, blessings and prayers take barely five minutes. Father Edduar sprinkles the sealed coffin with holy water before a pair of staff emerges to load it on a stretcher and roll it inside. Then it’s over. There is no eulogy, no visits, no public burial. There is almost no time for a goodbye.
As the hearse walks away, another takes its place a few moments later. The brief ceremonies are almost as constant as the flow of heat escaping from the crematorium chimney, sometimes turning into dark smoke against the misty sky.
It’s a strange scene, even for one of the largest cemeteries in Western Europe, whose rolling hills of endless tombstones have gone through famine, civil war and Spanish flu.
This is what the process of public mourning looks like in the state of emergency of the coronavirus in Spain, which has kept the Spaniards homebound, with a few exceptions, for three weeks already – with at least three more to go.
“You can see it on their faces, the great pain,” says Father Edduar, with his Venezuelan accent. Not only have people lost loved ones, they also have to say goodbye to very few others. Some people stream the short sidewalk service to their phones so that extended family and friends can share them instantly. However, this is not the last shipment that anyone would want.
With churches closed all over the country, it is one of the few places where the predominantly Catholic population of Spain can see a priest in person.
“I try to be close to them. I tell them that I am with them and that they are not alone. Sometimes it bothers me. I’m crying, ”says Father Edduar. The risk of contracting the virus does not escape him either. He does not wear a mask or gloves. “It may sound a little strange, but at this historic moment, I consider it a privilege … my life is for people – being with them at this crucial moment. “
Spain has been hit more severely by the coronavirus pandemic than almost any other country in the world. Madrid is the epicenter of its outbreak, responsible for 40% of deaths from coronavirus in Spain. As the city’s morgues were unable to manage the volume of bodies, two skating rinks are now used as temporary morgues. Cemeteries say they bury two or three times as many bodies as usual.
On the other side of the small parking lot, next to a flowerbed with closed shutters, Félix Poveda goes back and forth in an elegant black pea coat, a dark tie and a white surgical mask. He himself contracted the virus at a family lunch a few weeks ago. His brother and mother also understood – all three were eventually hospitalized. Her 77-year-old mother died.
Like so many others in Spain, Poveda had to say goodbye to him over the phone. He says his mother’s doctor explained to her that she wasn’t eligible for a ventilator – equipment that was hopelessly inadequate in Madrid’s crowded hospitals.
“I don’t know how to handle this … I don’t know how to feel,” he told us. He understands the need for distance and brevity to bury the dead, but understanding does not make reality less harsh.
” I am alone here. My brother and sister, they couldn’t come. My wife is not coming. The grandchildren and granddaughters do not come. Just me. There is no way to think that the end … could be [like] this. “
Poveda plans to hold an appropriate funeral for his mother when the crisis is over, he just doesn’t know when it will be.
Moments later, a hearse approaches the crematorium. This one, he confirms, carries his mother’s body. Like clockwork, Father Edduar emerges to lead the prayers. Poveda crosses her hands and lowers her head.
A few minutes later, his coffin was carried inside on a stretcher. As he returns to his car, his pain and shock are too obvious. The tears that run down his face are partly masked by his mask. This was not how he expected to say goodbye to his mother.