Gravediggers and crematorium workers in Mexico are struggling to keep up the pace as the country registers escalating coronavirus death numbers while gradually easing some restrictions aimed at curbing the spread of COVID-19, the disease caused by the novel coronavirus.
Workers at the San Lorenzo Tezonco municipal cemetery on Mexico City's east said in interviews with The Associated Press news agency they have buried more bodies in the past weeks than they have ever seen before.
Antonio Garcia said he digs 15 to 20 graves a day now and has laid to rest more than 500 coronavirus victims.
"It takes me more than an hour to dig one grave," said Garcia's colleague, Melvin Sanaurio, wiping dirt from his face.
The work is physically and emotionally exhausting, with workers constantly in fear of becoming infected themselves. It is made worse when they have to don white plastic anti-contamination suits that seal in the heat and sweat to lower the caskets and fill in the graves.
"Between the dust and the heat, it's suffocating," Garcia said. "We bury the coffins with the fear of catching it. We have families to protect."
"The work of a gravedigger doesn't get much recognition," he said. "Instead of recognition we get abuse. We are the forgotten ones, the anonymous heroes, the last link in the chain of this pandemic."
As the two talk, a hearse pulls up with another COVID-19 victim. They are easy to distinguish because the coffins are wrapped in clear plastic, and they are taken to a special area of the graveyard designated for coronavirus burials.
The workers carry the coffin there themselves, a job that in the past might have been done by mourners. But under special rules only two relatives are allowed to accompany the coffin to the grave.
Burials are not the same any more; now they last as little as 15 minutes.
No bands, no music, no weeping; only the strange silence, the sound of shovels hitting dry earth, which is whipped up by the wind.
About 15 minutes away, Jorge Eduardo Morales has worked for the last eight years at the San Nicolas Tolentino crematorium.
Every day, black smoke rises from the crematorium's chimney and relatives walk away with the ashes of their loved ones in small white urns.
In the first days of the pandemic in Mexico, in March, they cremated 15 bodies a day. By May, that had risen to between 30 and 35 a day.
"We are in the thick of the battle every day," said Morales. "We may have to put on a protective shield many times when we load the bodies into the ovens, but our hearts are still exposed."
The government, meanwhile, is seeking a balance. It formally ended its social distancing rule and is taking other steps to reopen the economy while still urging Mexicans to maintain most of the measures designed to protect them from the new coronavirus.
Arturo Morales Torres is a city employee who oversees 10 cemeteries in the eastern borough of Iztapalapa.
"In the last few months burials have increased 40 percent and cremations have gone up 30 percent because of COVID-19," Morales said. "I have had the misfortune of receiving the bodies of people I worked with. It is very painful, to see their families crying."
"They didn't even have time to say goodbye," he said. "It is very sad, they are our friends and it hurts, but we have to bury them."