Argentina’s economic crisis: graves and funerals unaffordable

No one can escape Argentina's biggest economic crisis in almost two decades -- not even the dead. The cost of buying, renting and maintaining graves and tombs is so high that many people opt to cremate their loved ones instead.

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No one can escape Argentina’s biggest economic crisis in almost two decades — not even the dead. The cost of buying, renting and maintaining graves and tombs is so high that many people opt to cremate their loved ones instead.

Juan Tapia runs the Cocheria Tacuari undertakers in Buenos Aires, which has been operating for 60 years.

“It’s an economic problem. People don’t have enough money to pay for a service. Family members help each other, ask for loans; some come and pay with US dollars that they’ve saved or kept under the mattress,” he told AFP.

Undertakers are constantly forced to drop their prices “because unfortunately people don’t have the same spending power of a few years ago.” Paying for a funeral “means, for a family, that they might not eat this month,” said Tapia.

The cheapest service offered by Cocheria Tacuari is a cremation without a wake, which costs 25,000 pesos ($415) — almost 50 percent more than the minimum wage of 16,875 pesos a month.

More expensive options can cost up to 180,000 pesos, but few are interested in those. “Almost 90 percent ask for cremation. Young people want nothing to do either with graves, niches (cubbies for storing remains urns) or tombs,” said Tapia.

Standing beside her mother’s tomb, gloves and pruning shears in her hands, Maria has decided to stop paying the cemetery’s maintenance fees

His estimations are not far off from official statistics. In 2018, 78.5 percent of corpses in Buenos Aires were cremated, according to an AFP count of public records. That’s the highest proportion over the last decade.

“To lease a niche in the cemetery, you have to pay a huge amount every year, and many don’t want to and can’t do it, so they opt for a cremation,” said Tapia. Rents at public cemeteries in Buenos Aires, including maintenance, range from 400-2,000 pesos a month.

In the private sector, plots sell for a minimum of 55,000 pesos with monthly maintenance from 500 pesos. Cremation, on the other hand, does not incur long-term expenses.

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As a result, dead bodies are often taken straight from the hospital to the crematorium in simple poplar wood coffins.

Niche for Sale

Three months ago, Patricia Alvarez, an English translator and make-up artist, advertised on the internet a niche that her family had bought in the Chacarita public cemetery in Buenos Aires.

“I’m selling it because there’s no sense” in keeping it, she told AFP when contacted about her advert — the only response she’s had.

“It doesn’t cost much, 500 pesos a month, but when it builds up, it’s annoying, and it adds to a mountain of other expenses I already have,” she said.

The Alvarez’s niche looks to be in good condition, but others in the cemetery are in a sorry state, with notes attached to them asking the owners or leasers to “go and see the administration.”

Many tombs have been abandoned and overgrown with vegetation. Some have broken statues, and there are niches that have been completely destroyed. In some, the bones inside are visible.

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Standing beside her mother’s tomb, gloves and pruning shears in her hands, Maria has decided to stop paying the cemetery’s maintenance fees.

“I don’t think I’ll pay the 1,500 pesos a month any more to trim the vegetation — it’s a lot!” she told AFP, preferring not to give her surname for fear of reprisals by the site’s maintenance personnel.

“For this money, it’s better that I come and do it myself.”

South America’s second largest economy is expected to contract for third time in 2020. Inflation is above 50%, and the peso is on track to be the worst performer in emerging markets for the fourth straight year.

But according to Jorge Bonacorsi, president of the Argentine funerary services federation, cost is not the only thing deterring Argentines from traditional burials. He says the rise in cremations is a global trend.

“What prevails now is a certain sentimental practicality: people want to get rid of the problem,” he said.

Economic crisis

The current recession began last year. While a severe drought and selloffs across emerging markets played a part, the root cause was a budget deficit that investors hesitated to finance as President Mauricio Macri’s government lost credibility.

South America’s second largest economy is expected to contract for third time in 2020. Inflation is above 50%, and the peso is on track to be the worst performer in emerging markets for the fourth straight year.

An IMF rescue package, backed by the Fund’s biggest-ever loan, failed to stabilize the economy, forcing Macri to defer debt payments and impose capital controls after a shocking primary defeat to Fernandez in August.

Argentina’s economic woes began long before he took office. Since 1950, Argentina has spent 33% of the time in recession, second in the world behind the Democratic Republic of Congo, according to the World Bank.

Politically, the country has swung between pro-business governments and more populist ones. That has brought policy reversals that make long-term investment very difficult.

A cycle has developed in which leaders routinely spend more than the government earns in tax revenue, forcing them to issue bonds that investors eventually sour on. That domino effect often ends with high inflation, recession and, sometimes, a debt crisis. In 2001, Argentina defaulted on $95 billion in sovereign bonds, a record at the time. Bond markets seem to think that another payment crisis is likely soon.

Politically, the country has swung between pro-business governments and more populist ones. That has brought policy reversals that make long-term investment very difficult. Tax laws have been modified 80 times since 1988, while fiscal rules changed 14 times. There have been 61 central bank chiefs in the institution’s 84 years.

The upshot is an economy that doesn’t match the country’s vast natural resources and highly educated population. Macri is just the latest leader to founder after promising to get Argentina back on its feet. Now Fernandez faces the same daunting challenge.

GVS News Desk with additions from news agencies. 

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