Real estate of all kinds is scarce in Bogota, the capital of Colombia, and one of the fastest-growing cities in South America.
Real estate of all kinds is scarce in Bogota, the capital of Colombia, and one of the fastest-growing cities in South America. Bogota's population is estimated to have grown by two million above the official figure of three million set down in 1975. This has caused problems of crowding for both the living and the dead.
SYNOPSIS: Official figures for 1975 showed that more than 16,500 people died in Bogota that year. Since then, the population has risen dramatically and so has the number of deaths. The government has been forced to change some of its policies regarding burial. For instance, it has brought in a new law allowing cremation.
Previously, cremation has been forbidden on religious and health grounds. Cremation is against the tenets of the Roman Catholic Church, which has a strong influence here. The government, however, felt it had to take a pragmatic approach.
Like the society outside, the cemetery reflects the enormous gap that exists between rich and poor. Rich families place their dead inside large, imposing tombs, many of them styled after European castles. In this marbled splendour, the bones of the rich lie here forever.
For the poor, and even the middle class, interment is only temporary. These walls contain burial niches for 15,000 bodies. Faced with this finite amount of space, the authorities long ago decided the bodies could rest there for only five years. Depending on its position in the wall, each niche costs a rental fee of 20 to 70 dollars.
When the time span elapses, the bodies are removed, and the crumbling remnants of the coffin burned. The space is then prepared for a new body and coffin.
Relatives gather the remains (or 'restos') of the body whose rental time is up. They scoop these remains into a plastic bag, to be carried home and, most likely, buried in the back garden.
Altogether, 37,000 bodies are buried in Bogota's central cemetery. Here, as anywhere else, death breeds business...tombstone makers hawk their wares just outside the cemetery gates. Monday is the main visiting day for mourners. Beggars seeking to delay their final passage through the gates plead by the cemetery walls, for money they say they will put towards medical help.
Further along the road, private enterprise flourishes among flower sellers vying for the brisk Monday trade.
Amid this sorrow and decomposition, one person has retained a sense of humour. After paying their respects, mourners can pause for a drink at a cafe close to the main gates. The owner has named it La Ultima Lagrima -- the Last Tear.