Spain: Economic crisis pushes funeral costs out of reach, many donate to science

[As the capitalist crisis — the so-called “Great Recession” — continues to shake up lives and property relations, real estate corporations are reorganizing housing markets to take advantage of mass desperation and this now also affects the funeral and cemetary markets.  For a diabolical view of how capitalist cost-benefit analysis anticipates death rates–soaring from suicides, but traffic deaths declining because people cannot afford car repairs or gas–and how science ends up with a body glut–see this article. — Frontlines ed.]

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Economic Crisis Leaves Hard-Hit Spaniards Scrimping on Funerals

By Dan Bilefsky, New York Times, November 22, 2012

Fausto Ruiz wants to sell his family plots at the Montjuïc cemetery, where mausoleums, niches and graves can cost €100,000 or more.

BARCELONA — María Cristina Riveros can barely afford to live, let alone die. So when the end comes, she insists, there will be no spray of red roses or marble tombstone to mark her grave. Instead she is donating her body to science, to avoid being a financial burden on her family.

“I’m not upset about death — I’m upset about life,” said Mrs. Riveros, 53, an unemployed geriatric nurse and single mother, as she waited in line on a recent day for food at a church here. Her 16-year-old daughter, who suffers from a rare immune deficiency, needs €9,000, or about $11,500, for an operation, she said. Monthly insurance payments for her own funeral were out of the question.

Europe’s grinding economic crisis has left hard-hit Spaniards scrimping on death. They are defaulting on cemetery plots — and thousands face being evicted from them. They are opting for inexpensive funerals, or financing them in monthly installments. Pricey extras like grief therapy, organists to play “Ave Maria” or elaborate floral arrangements are being pruned.

But while austerity tears at the funeral industry — and some say the social fabric of the country — it has been a boon for science. Donating a body has become such a popular alternative to the cost of a funeral that some medical schools complain they do not have enough refrigerators to store all of them.

Here at University of Barcelona’s medical school, José Luis Ramón, who is in charge of donations, said people registering to donate their bodies had increased this year by nearly one-quarter, to 1,500, spurred by bad economic times and altruism. The bodies are being used for medical school dissection classes and to test cutting edge surgical techniques and innovative prosthetic silicone molds for patients with spinal diseases.

When he screened donors, Mr. Ramón said, some wanted to confirm that the university would pay for the transport of their bodies from the hospital to the laboratory.

“One woman wanted to know how much she would save, including the cost of gas,” he said.

Antonio Crespo, director of morphological science at Santiago de Compostela University, said it had received so many donation applications this year that the university was now referring would-be donors to Valencia Medical School, about 960 kilometers, or 600 miles, away.

The crisis is saving lives in other unexpected ways as well. While despondent Spaniards being evicted from their homes have committed suicide in recent days, road deaths are down, as a growing number of Spaniards are unable to afford car repairs or the price of gasoline.

For the first time since the general traffic agency began keeping records in 1960, only one death was reported on Spanish highways during the last weekend of October, and overall road deaths have fallen about 46 percent to 1,022 this year, compared with 1,903 three years ago.

When deaths do occur, the costs of disposing of the body are now cut in just about every conceivable way.

A typical funeral costs about €3,000, including the cost of an embalmer and the transport of the body to the funeral home and cemetery, said Eduardo Vidal, chief executive of Grupo Mémora, Spain’s largest funeral provider. But many Spaniards, he said, are opting for cheaper €1,000 funerals and choosing cut-rate coffins made from composite wood. Paying by monthly installments jumped by 40 percent, he noted. Others were dipping into their inheritances to pay funeral bills, he said.

In the past, Mémora would make handsome profits from the repatriation of bodies when someone died abroad. But fewer Spaniards were taking vacations, let alone dying on them.

And even if someone from Barcelona died in, say, Bilbao, about 600 kilometers or six hours away by car, Mr. Vidal noted, the families were increasingly opting to cremate the body and transport the urn by car or train rather than paying for a hearse to transport the body, a savings of about €1,000.

Expensive memorials, too, have gone the way of better times. In the past, some wealthy Spaniards had greeted a sudden and tragic death in the family by splurging on a €3,000 diamond, created from the carbon in a lock of hair or the cremated ashes of a loved one. That’s now a rarity.

Even preserving a piece of muscle tissue for future DNA testing, a growing trend before the crisis, was now regarded as an extravagance at €300.

But worries over funeral expenses were being somewhat offset, experts said, by the fact that more Spaniards were getting death insurance, for fear of not being able to afford sudden and spiraling funeral costs, said Javier Fernández, a spokesman for Unespa, the national insurance association.

At Barcelona’s serene Poblenou cemetery, where rows of handsome flower-adorned niches are stacked vertically in a Mediterranean tradition going back centuries, the director general of Barcelona’s cemeteries, Jordi Valmaña, insisted that the close ties of the Spanish family and Catalan culture meant that people saved for funerals, even in hard times like these. The municipality provided charity funerals for the poor and destitute. “In our tradition people will do whatever it takes to honor the dead and their heritage,” he said.

Yet scattered among the endless rows of niches were more than a dozen eviction notices taped over the names of the dead. Many of them dated to 2009 during the height of the crisis, and the municipality said it waited five years before enforcing evictions. In Spain, evicted bodies are typically moved to less expensive upper niches or buried in unmarked graves.

At Son Valenti cemetery, in Palma, Majorca, 6,200 grave owners have defaulted on their annual rent of €10.50 per body, forcing the local municipality to evict entire families from their niches.

Spaniards are also selling their family graves, arguing that it is better to use their money in the here and now. One family from Andalusia said they had recently exhumed more than a dozen relatives going back several generations and cremated them rather than pay thousands of euros in annual upkeep for their graves. They declined to give their name for fear of being ostracized by neighbors.

Fausto Ruiz, an economic consultant, wants to sell his family plots at the Montjuïc cemetery, a sprawling cemetery on a rocky hillside that holds some of the city’s most venerated citizens, including the former president of Catalonia, Francesc Macià, and the painter Joan Miró. There, ornate mausoleums, niches and graves can cost €100,000 or more.

Mr. Ruiz, who is asking €80,000 for his plot, said he hoped to put the money toward supporting his aging mother, whose expensive tastes had survived the downturn. He said his father, who is 82 and recovering from a stroke, wanted to be buried in a less expensive niche at another cemetery.

“My mother protested,” he said. “But we overruled her because during a crisis, you have to prepare for the worst.”

Silvia Taulés contributed to reporting.

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