Colombian woman cares for Venezuelan dead amid migrant crisis
On a single day in June, Sonia Bermúdez made two separate trips to a dusty border town in northern Colombia to collect five bodies.
Four of them were destitute Venezuelans, whose family members were unwilling or unable to claim them from across the border. The other was an anonymous corpse, no nationality known.
Transporting the “guests” in the bed of her pickup truck, Bermúdez took them to her private cemetery near the Colombian coastal town of Riohacha to make sure they didn’t end up in communal graves.
“Every person deserves a dignified death and a dignified burial. It doesn’t matter who you are or where you came from,” Bermúdez said. “Death has no nationality.”
The bodies joined the growing number of Venezuelans — or likely Venezuelans — that she has buried in her cemetery. There are the young men cut down by violence and automobile wrecks, mothers and infants who didn’t survive childbirth, the senior citizen who died of heartbreak, and a handful of the anonymous dead.
But they all had two things in common: They were fleeing Venezuela, and they ended up in the hands of Bermúdez, a 64-year-old mother of seven who says her lifelong mission is to care for the abandoned and unwanted dead.
Bermúdez has spent more than 40 years working as a coroner, undertaker and gravedigger in Colombia’s Guajira, an arid, windswept and impoverished swath of the country. Going from town to town in her white Ford F-150 pickup truck she calls La Loca — or, the Crazy Woman — Bermúdez recovers bodies from hospitals and police morgues, saving them from being buried in communal graves. Other times she simply helps families who are too poor to afford a proper funeral.
Before Venezuela went from being one of the most prosperous nations in Latin America to an economic disaster zone, most of the bodies she recovered were Colombians, victims of the nation’s half-century civil conflict.
Recently, though, it’s been the steady flow of migrants crossing the border from Venezuela who are keeping her busy. More than 50,000 Venezuelans are thought to cross overland into neighboring Colombia every day. Many are looking for medicine, food or temporary work to stay alive in Venezuela. Others are fleeing for good — heading to Peru, Chile and Ecuador — in one of the largest migratory movements in South American history. And most are traveling with little or no money, as they leave a country where hyperinflation has destroyed savings.
When they die abroad, their loved ones often can’t afford to bring them back or pay for a funeral. And that’s where Bermúdez steps in. Since late 2017, she says she has buried about 30 Venezuelans, at no cost, in her cemetery named Gente Como Uno, or People Like Us. “Because once we’re dead, we’re all the same,” she explained.
Last week, Bermúdez, dressed in baggy clothes and a bright headscarf, was smoothing concrete with a trowel as she and three helpers put the finishing touches on a new wing of a mausoleum containing 40 cement cubbyholes — just large enough for a casket — in anticipation of more Venezuelans.
“I worry about what happens to Venezuelans when they die in other parts,” she said. “Because here in Riohacha I bury them myself.”
While many people see the work as depressing at best, Bermúdez says she was raised surrounded by the dead.
Her father was the caretaker of Riohacha’s central cemetery and she recalls playing hooky from school to spend time with him. She says she assisted with her first autopsy, also at the cemetery, when she was 13. It was there that she saw how the bodies of the poor and unclaimed were unceremoniously dumped in communal graves, and it offended her. Still in her teens, she won a scholarship to travel to Colombia’s capital, Bogotá, to become a coroner.
She returned to Riohacha to practice her trade, but after hours she had another passion: taking the corpses of the anonymous and destitute and burying them — without permission — on an unused plot owned by the city. If she hadn’t spirited them away, they would have ended up in mass graves, she explained. When times were good, and she had enough money, she would build wooden coffins herself. When money was tight, she would wrap the bodies in plastic bags before interring them.
But each person was individually identified — anonymous corpses get an ID number issued by the medical examiner’s office — and buried separately. “I always thought someone might come and reclaim the bodies,” she said.
Once there were about 40 graves in her illegal cemetery, she approached city officials and confessed what she was doing — and persuaded them, in 2007, to recognize the strip of scrub land as an official cemetery.
Over the years, Bermúdez has built two large mausoleum crypts on the land with space for about 120 bodies. The residents of her “five-star hotel” have their names etched into the concrete crypt and their graves decorated with plastic flowers. After three to five years, their remains are moved to a smaller space, much like a columbarium, to make room for new bodies.
While the cemetery receives a subsidy from the city of Riohacha, Bermúdez says she pays most expenses out of her own pocket.
When UNHCR, the U.N. refugee agency, recently heard about her work it provided resources so she could build more crypts. Federico Sersale, the head of UNHCR’s operations in Riohacha, said the agency had become alarmed when it discovered there were Venezuelan bodies at the morgue in Maicao, about an hour from Riohacha, some of them there for five months.
Burying the dead isn’t usually part of UNHCR’s core mission, he said, “but we decided to help, because we see this as an urgent issue. And Sonia [Bermúdez] was providing a solution.”
Bermúdez’s work, giving the region’s poorest the opportunity for a decent funeral, has made her something of a local celebrity. On Monday, she was given the highest honor granted by Guajira’s congress. People greet her on the street and cabdrivers know where she lives.
“Everyone knows Sonia,” one cabbie explained, “she’s the last person to see you when we’re dead.”
While Bermúdez enjoys the recognition, she says what she really needs is help. The Guajira is one of the poorest regions in the country. Malnutrition and disease already have municipal budgets stretched thin. In that context, there’s little sympathy or resources to tend to the Venezuelan dead, she said.
“What I can tell you is that I will not allow a single Venezuelan who dies in Riohacha to be buried like a dog,” she said. “If I have to fight tooth and nail for my dead, I will do it.”