LIMA, Peru (AP) —
The cemetery on a remote hill outside Peru’s teeming capital does not have granite tombstones, a green lawn or even paved roads.
The dead from coronavirus here are buried on a hill filled only with dirt.
As the number of COVID-19 deaths in Peru rapidly mounts – becoming an epicenter for the virus outbreak in Latin America – the Virgen de Lourdes cemetery has become a monument to the pandemic’s devastating toll among the poor.
The cemetery is among the largest in the world, with over 1 million tombs, and it’s located in one of Lima’s most impoverished neighborhoods. Now, with COVID-19’s escalating death toll, the cemetery is becoming even more gargantuan.
The newly dead from the virus are being buried at a distance, in one of the sprawling cemetery’s most remote hills. Relatives and cemetery workers carry caskets up the steep terrain and place them in freshly dug pits.
Before one tomb, a man thumbs the strings of a worn wooden harp. Family members cry, collapse, and sometimes, let out a sorrowful laugh. Some throw beer into the pit, an ancient ritual honoring the newly departed.
Stray dogs linger, sitting alongside graves when relatives have left.
Known among locals as Nueva Esperanza Cemetery – or New Hope Cemetery – the graveyard was built in the 1960s and later filled with the remains of Peruvians who died after migrating to Lima in escape of a brutal war against Shining Path guerillas.
The cemetery has grown so exponentially in recent years that it has become a destination for international tourists, drawn to witness the area crowded with crypts, some painted bright pink or blue, set among the barren landscape.
Now the travelers are gone, only relatives, some in face masks, venture inside.
There are children and teens mourning parents. One woman burying two brothers. A man who has now lost three. Many of the victims are no older than 55. Many died quickly, lives interrupted by an unforgiving virus.
Gregoria Zumaeta, 44, cried and drank beer in honor of her two siblings, who died days apart, taking solace in thinking, “They no longer suffer.”
Peru now has over 170,000 confirmed cases and more than 4,600 deaths.