Opinion, by Michael Kerlin

RIO DE JANEIRO, BRAZIL – If you want to understand inequality in Rio de Janeiro, take a trip to São Francisco Xavier cemetery. A few months ago, I went there with a young man from one of Rio’s favelas for the funeral of his great uncle. I’ll call the young man Gilberto. After paying my respects to the family, I took a walk with Gilberto through one of the largest cemeteries in all of Brazil.

Michael D. Kerlin is an international management consultant who began working in Rio’s favelas fifteen years ago.

“This is where the rich people go,” Gilberto said, as he pointed to a sea of mausoleums. The mausoleums were elaborate, with marble façades and carvings of Jesus and the Virgin Mary. Tall crosses rose up from the tops of some. Amid the mausoleums lay some less elaborate but still elegant graves that rose about four feet above the ground and, according to Gilberto, dropped about the same depth below the ground.

We walked on, past large collective mausoleums. “This is where people go when they’re important, but maybe not rich,” Gilberto said. “You know, people like police and the military.”

I found myself wondering where the poor people went or if perhaps Gilberto’s extended family was wealthier than I realized. Then we turned left onto a new path and Gilberto pointed to the right. Before us, lay a huge field of overturned earth. It looked like a cross between a farm during planting season and a mass grave.

“This,” Gilberto said. “This is where our family members go when they die. I’d like to go find my other uncle, the one who we buried last Sunday.”

We walked across the overturned earth. “Be careful,” Gilberto said. “Don’t walk on the lumps. You have to walk between the lumps. The bodies aren’t very deep.” Then he pointed to some of the freshly dug graves. They were only about two or three feet deep. It had rained hard the night before, so some of the recently filled graves had flooded, and the runoff exposed the edges of caskets. A jawbone floated in a puddle.

Two gravediggers hunched on their shovels in the sun a few rows over. They wore shorts and flip flops. One walked over to us. “Have you thought about a gravestone? I have a new gravestone business,” he said earnestly. “Here, take my card.”

Gilberto took the card and led me back to the path. “If that guy has good deals, then my aunt should buy a little stone cross from him. We don’t want to spend too much money because my uncle will only be here for three years. Then we either have to pick up his bones or they dig them up and get rid of them. I guess it isn’t the nicest set up for a burial,” Gilberto said, “but it only costs R$2.50.”

“Some people from the favelas pay more,” Gilberto said. Then he led me back up the dirt path between the poor people’s graves and into the shaded concrete path that ran through the “rich neighborhood,” as he called it.

He walked me up to a marble grave, with a bronze image of a young man, smiling and giving the thumbs up sign. He pointed out about a dozen bullet holes pocked into the marble.

“This is where Uê lives.” Uê, born Ernaldo Pinto de Medeiros, was the old drug boss for the Amigos dos Amigos gang, a breakout rival of the larger Comando Vermelho. “Other bandidos come at night and shoot the grave up,” Gilberto said.

It turned out Uê’s family paid R$35,000 for the grave, more than ten thousand times the cost of Gilberto’s uncle’s mound of earth. The family spent another R$9,000 on additional upgrades. Then, every week, Uê’s family paid cemetery workers to clean up vandalism damage as best they could. Uê’s grave was perpetual, so his bones wouldn’t have to be removed after three years, and it was secured from the elements, so his jaw bone wouldn’t come floating up to the surface in a flood.

So there they lay along the main thoroughfare of the cemetery—the drug leaders, the police that they corrupted, the military that had come in to take them on once and for all, and the rich people who bought the drugs from them. The only people left out were the poor who had decided not to join the drug gangs.

Rio’s inequality hit me hardest there in the cemetery because I had always thought of death as the great equalizer. Now the cemetery was immortalizing all of the indignities that Rio’s poor felt their whole lives. The cemetery was a microcosm of the rest of the city—the poor in squalid conditions, right at the edge of dignity, with the rich nearby and always visible.

And the sad thing is there’s no policy that can fix the quiet tragedy at São Francisco Xavier cemetery. You can’t legislate better graves for the poor. On the bright side, the same things that can bring dignity during life—education, economic opportunity, safety—can help people afford more dignity in death.

But, for now, as people like Gilberto fight for respect in life, they need only go to the next family funeral to be reminded where they stand.

Michael Kerlin began working in Rio de Janeiro’s favelas fifteen years ago. An international management consultant, he has written about economic development in the Washington Post, Christian Science Monitor, Philadelphia Inquirer, and several other publications.

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