Héctor Orellanqui, 65, wearing a white overcoat and mask, has a painful duty to carry out: delivering the ashes of those who have died from COVID-19 to families who can in most cases no longer carry out traditional funerals for their loved ones.
In the last few months, Orellanqui has delivered around 200 marble urns with cremated remains as cases from the novel coronavirus have climbed in Peru to above 200,000, the eighth highest in the world. The death toll stands at over 5,700.
The Piedrangel crematorium where Orellanqui works has cremated at least 3,500 people who have died from COVID-19 or were suspected of having contracted the virus since mid-March. Before the crisis it carried out around 250-300 each month.
Each time is hard to take.
“I feel a pain inside, but I can’t break down while I’m giving the urns to the families. I have to give them support,” Orellanqui, a grey-haired man with two children, told us.
When Orellanqui is in private, then his emotions can flood out. “When I return home, I feel lonely and there are times when tears come to my eyes,” he said.
Peru, a mountainous Andean country of 33 million people, has been hit hard by the pandemic despite an early lockdown. It is only second to Brazil in Latin American in terms of cases.
Before March 19 when the first fatality from COVID-19 was registered in Peru, the Piedrangel crematorium had 35 workers. Now there are 120 who work in three shifts, 24 hours a day, to meet the demand that continues to rise.
The firm not only cremates those killed by the virus, but has also been hired by the state to collect bodies from homes, hospitals or even the street.
Orellanqui, a driver for the crematorium for five years, collected bodies at the start of the pandemic, but due to his age was shifted to a job seen as less at risk of contagion.
Many of the additional workers are Venezuela migrants.
“I’m terrified of the dead. In Venezuela my job was as a mechanic, mostly fixing things,” said Alexander Carvallo, a Venezuelan living in Lima, who said he needed money to send to his family back home.
The crematorium charges about 3,100 soles ($905) for collecting, cremation and delivering ashes. A body collector can earn over 4,000 soles a month, well above minimum salary level.
“We are collecting an average of 70 to 80 dead people a day,” said Miguel Gonzáles, administrator of Piedrangel. “Some days we have told the hospital we can no longer collect because we have no more capacity,” he said by phone.
The bodies are burned at the crematorium in Lima’s Chorrillos district at temperatures above 1,000 Celsius. With each body around 1.2 kilos (2.6 pounds) of ashes is collected.
“The corpses we cannot incinerate due to lack of time, we list it, with their names, and we have it in a refrigerator waiting for cremation, waiting for their turn,” said Gonzáles.
Gonzáles said the job comes with risks, and every 10 days all workers go through a test for the virus.
The pandemic has also changed the whole way deaths are handled, with the delivery at home of the ashes meaning funeral ceremonies have practically disappeared and relatives can no longer mourn their loved ones with a procession through the neighborhood streets or at the cemetery.
“The culture of a burial was to watch over the dead, it was the send off to a new destination,” said Gonzáles. “Not now, the funeral culture has totally changed.”