Volunteer mourners give unclaimed dead final send-off
A hearse winds its way slowly through Benfica cemetery in Lisbon, followed by four people walking in silence through the December drizzle.
The mourners are not relatives of the deceased. In fact, they barely know her name.
Since 2004, members of the Irmandade da Misericordia e de Sao Roque, a Catholic fraternity, have been organising funeral processions for people who die alone in the Portuguese capital.
Many of those they mourn are elderly people, who were abandoned in hospital.
But they also include homeless people, illegal immigrants, foreigners whose families were unable to repatriate the bodies and, sometimes, newborns found dead in dumpsters.
Among the adult dead, men outnumber women two to one.
“We can’t hold their hand when death comes knocking but we can accompany them, with dignity, on their last journey on Earth,” Mario Pinto Coelho, one of the fraternity’s leaders, said.
The idea originated with Ana Campos Reis, who began by attending the funerals of HIV/AIDS victims who had been cast out by their families.
Since then, the 62-year-old nurse has taken part in over 2,000 funeral processions.
Campos Reis is planning a book about five cases that particularly moved her down the years.
“When it comes to children, you can’t help asking ‘Where were the parents’,” she admitted.
FINDING OUT THEIR NAME
On this December afternoon the only thing the mourners know is that they are burying a woman called Laura, who was 99 at the time of her death.
“Sometimes you find out they died at home or in hospital or in the street, but in some cases the health services and police never even succeed in finding out their name,” Pinto Coelho explained.
Around 15 of the fraternity’s 150 or so members take turns to perform the last of the seven Spiritual Works of Mercy expected of Catholics: “Pray for the living and the dead.”
The seventh of the Corporal Works of Mercy — “To bury the dead”, or, rather, pay for their burial — is taken care of by Lisbon’s Santa Casa da Misericordia, a charity dating back over 500 years, which is currently funded by lottery tickets.
At the far end of the cemetery in northern Lisbon, next to a wall overlooking a motorway slip road, Father Cecilio is delivering a brief graveside oration.
“Thank you very much, on behalf of Laura, for this charitable gesture,” he tells the mourners.
Volunteering to lament the dead takes a toll on the living.
To cushion the mourners the fraternity offers a programme of spiritual and psychological support.
“Someone once asked me if I was haunted by the people whose funerals I have followed,” Campos Reis said quietly.
“It has caused me some pain but they are more guardian angels to me than ghosts.”
For Ana Cristina, being present at the interments, represents “an act of love and compassion”.
“It’s very sad to think that people could die and that no one would show up at their funeral,” said the fortysomething, who was carrying a bouquet of yellow lilies.
Antonio Balcao Reis, a retired navy officer, also expressed solidarity with the forsaken departed.
“I’m shocked by the idea of a hearse passing with no one following it. I can’t let this human being leave alone,” said the snowy-haired 76-year-old.
“Personally speaking, I don’t feel the need to know his or her story. This is someone who passed through this world, and who was abandoned at the end, but whom I look on like a brother.”
After a last prayer from Father Cecilio, the only sound disturbing the peace in the cemetery is that of shovelfuls of damp earth falling on Laura’s coffin.
Hers is the last in a line of fresh mounds. The graves of her neighbours are covered in flowers but Laura’s has only one wreath.