The majority of Nicaraguan companies are suffering the economic effects of the COVID-19 epidemic and the political crisis the country has been suffering since April 2018. However, there’s one industry that not only is surviving, but has had a large increase in sales: the funeral industry, including those who make coffins.
Some 60 funeral parlors all over the country and dozens of carpenters specializing in caskets have seen a dramatic rise in demand of 150% and more in some cases.
Before March, “the number of requests for funeral services was relatively normal – some five or six funeral service daily for diverse causes. There was no need to hire more people or buy certain materials such as suits, goggles, alcohol, etc.,” explained Evel Zuniga, general manager of the “La Catolica” and “La Auxiliadora” funeral homes.
Beginning in April, and more sharply in May, they went from about 60 funeral services a month to an average of 150 and 160 in the same period, Zuniga specified.
The experience of Denis Reyes, Marketing and Sales Manager at the Monte de los Olivos Funeral Parlor, doesn’t differ much from that of his colleague. Reyes recalls that “normal” previously involved two or three services a day. May brought an uncontrollable change, “an impressive month for us in terms of demand. It doubled, it tripled. From 2 -3 services a day, we went on to attend up to 10 in a single day,” he noted.
Garit Estrada Herrera, assistant manager at the L.A. Funeral Parlor, recalls that before the health crisis, his funeral parlor could expect to sell up to three coffins a day, with an accumulated weekly total of about ten. Now, they’ve sometimes sold five or six coffins in a single day, and up to fifteen or twenty in a week.
The “La Catolica” and the “Auxiliadora”, with six decades in the business, has registered only two other eras when they had to attend to so many deaths. “I’m talking about the  earthquake, or about the 80s during the crisis over materials, and the war. I believe that those were the eras with the greatest rise, until now, with this business of the pandemic, the Coronavirus,” Evel Zuniga shared.
No doubt: it’s COVID-19
By nature, funeral services are one of the few businesses which don’t publicly boast or celebrate their profits and their good economic times.
Denis Reyes sums up the industry’s feelings when he says: “It may seem ironic what I’m going to say, but we wish that this would go back to normal. We see the families’ pain, and it’s a very difficult situation we’re going through – not only Nicaragua, the whole world.”
Although the government narrative indicates that up through last Tuesday, June 16, Nicaragua has had only 64 deaths from the pandemic, the greater part of the hundreds of funeral honors that the mortuary business has had to preside over are almost certainly due to COVID-19.
Reyes explained that the majority of the funeral services held in the Monte de los Olivos parlor were deaths listed “from pneumonia.” There were cases where the death certificate said “COVID-19”, but the majority were registered as respiratory failure. We, as responsible parties, have to apply the [Coronavirus] protocols to protect the family and also ourselves.
“Beyond that, when it was classified as “atypical pneumonia” acquired in the community, the family itself often asked us for a wooden coffin with a hermetic seal,” he added.
Garit Estrada, of the L.A. Funeral Service, ascribed the increase in death to “the high level of contagion that this virus has, and, well, to the fact that unfortunately preventive measures have still not been taken, although there are people who are voluntarily staying home and taking measures.”
He explained that if the death certificate notes a respiratory ailment as the cause of death, “we catalogue it as a possible case of Coronavirus, and we take measures accordingly. We tell the customers this, because there’ve been cases where people don’t believe that the Coronavirus was the cause of the person’s death. So, we ask their permission to use protective gear, because people get upset.
For his part, Zuniga commented that the statistics his company has compiled show that in the majority of cases, “the hospitals have only put [as cause of death] atypical pneumonia or, at times, a heart attack.”
Making more coffins
As the need for funeral services grows, the demand for caskets also goes up. Consequently, there’s been an increase in the number of coffin-builders.
One of the newcomers to this business is industrial engineer Ricardo Lopez, who has more than a decade of experience in furniture manufacturing. This experience served him to begin crafting coffins, an activity he took up after becoming unemployed, but also somewhat by coincidence.
“The factory where I was working closed, and some 140 of us were left unemployed. Many of the carpenters that were working with me suggested getting into the casket business, but I didn’t really like the idea much,” he told Confidencial.
“One day a funeral home called me, asking if it was true that I was selling coffins, and I told them ‘no’. The next day, another funeral home called me with the same question, and I said ‘no’. When the third funeral home called, I told them: ‘I’ll get you an estimate,’” he recalled.
That last funeral home approved his budget estimate, and he assembled a crew and began to work. First, they made a sample, and when that was approved, a set of ten. The next week, they built another set of ten. At the moment of their interview, they were hoping to sign a contract to construct some 60 – 80 individual caskets, but in the end, they committed to making 150.
The data from the L.A. Funeral Parlor generally coincides with what Lopez has encountered: of 400 caskets in their storage, they’re now left with 40.
Garit Estrada explained that they also supply coffins to other funeral homes or people “that buy them in quantities to begin their business.”
Their inventory became so reduced because they were manufacturing 10-15 coffins daily, while demand “almost reached 25 boxes daily.”
Zuniga, whose two funeral homes also manufacture their own caskets, stated that they had to contract additional workers for their carpentry workshop.
Prices of inputs shoot up
The increased demand has resulted in a rise in the prices hardware stores are charging for the wood and other parts needed to make a coffin.
Evel Zuniga of “La Catolica” and the “Auxiliadora” Funeral Homes assured that there was an adequate supply of materials, but “the prices of the raw materials, the wood, the paint, have risen more or less by 50%.
Garit Estrada of the L.A. Funeral Home explained that “right now, given the demand for so many coffins, the prices have risen, and that’s made the price of the caskets double.”
Ricardo Lopez is in a similar predicament. He stated: the majority of the places that sell raw materials at a fair and accessible price have folded. They don’t have any materials. There are hardware stores where normally I can buy 400 sheets of plywood easily. Now, it’s almost an impossible quest to try and find 30 sheets.”
Ten times more burials a day
The monthly report from a Managua cemetery, which Confidencial was allowed to examine, shows that 40% of the deceased were issued a death certificate from the Ministry of Health listing a respiratory illness as the cause of death. This coincides with the denunciation of medical personnel that the regime’s policy is to mask the number of deaths from COVID-19.
The workers in this cemetery – who asked to withhold their names for fear of reprisals – commented that in May the number of burials increased sharply. The funeral services with canopies, coffee and snacks became things of the past, and the workload was so great that the number of workers grew and the use of backhoes became more frequent.
Whereas previously they worked from eight in the morning to four in the afternoon, now their workday is a lot busier, extending into hours of the night and early morning. Whereas previously they saw one or two burials a day, the number rose five-fold last month, while in the first days of June, they had more than 30 burials.
A worker whose job it is to pick up the bodies from the hospitals and take them to the cemetery noted that if the person passed away in the afternoon or the evening, the order now was to deliver the body the next morning “to reduce the number of night burials that have been seen in the media and the social networks,” he speculated.
Another cemetery in the capital city ended May with nearly 300 funeral services, which was 10 times more than their previous average number of burials per day.