Puerto Rico

The Price of Goodbye: How the Economy Is Changing Funerals in Puerto Rico

Inflation has driven up the cost of traditional funerary rites, forcing loved ones to make difficult decisions that can make mourning even more painful.

Read this story in

Publication Date

The Price of Goodbye: How the Economy Is Changing Funerals in Puerto Rico

Coraly M. Cruz Mejías, GPJ Puerto Rico

A group holds a funeral procession for a loved one at Cementerio Municipal Andrés Vargas Chaparro in Aguada municipality.

Publication Date

AGUADA, PUERTO RICO — Roughly 30 people walk slowly through the oppressive heat behind a hearse. Music plays, intended to soften the pain of family and friends in attendance, many holding enormous parasols in shades of white, blue and black to shield themselves from the morning sun bearing down on the western coast of Puerto Rico. An abundance of white flowers blankets the casket in a floral farewell.

This funeral is simple and short, unlike those of the past, with three-day wakes, photos of the deceased on imposing display, and mourners sharing coffee, food and anecdotes before heading to the cemetery together. These rites used to mark the beginning of the mourning process, the recognition of the person who would no longer physically be there. This funeral also lacks a procession on horseback to accompany the interment. Mourners will not play traditional Puerto Rican plena music on their tambourines, and no one will throw two roosters on top of the casket to commemorate the pastime the departed enjoyed so much in life.

It is not just the passage of time that is erasing such scenes but also the deepening of the economic crisis in Puerto Rico, particularly following Hurricane Maria in 2017, whose devastation was a pivotal moment in the lives of Puerto Ricans. Today’s funerals are a hastier affair.

expand image
expand slideshow

Coraly M. Cruz Mejías, GPJ Puerto Rico

Funerals have grown simpler and more austere, and fewer people visit Puerto Rico’s cemeteries.

Cremation: The main option in the economic crisis

The havoc that Hurricane Maria wreaked included the deaths of some 4,600 people. And widespread power outages caused by the storm made handling the bodies of the deceased difficult, leading many to rely on cremation as the most efficient response to the public health issue. Then, coronavirus restrictions and security measures exacerbated the region’s economic crisis, paving the way for funerary rites to change.

With inflation rising from 3.2% to 6.6% between 2021 and 2022 and remaining elevated this year, many people have no choice but to cut funeral costs. This alters traditions, which can overwhelm people — especially the older population — with profound sadness and pain. Many stop holding wakes in their homes, the amount of time allotted for them is cut, and cremation replaces traditional burials.

“You have to manage the spending, the sorrow and the pain,” says Willy Padua, a construction worker who had to grapple with the death of his mother this year. “The experience really weighed on me because I didn’t have enough money.”

Padua’s mother had wanted a traditional Catholic funeral, but he could only afford a cremation.

Coraly M. Cruz Mejías, GPJ Puerto Rico

Financial hardship has led more families to choose cremation, but this can cause more pain and suffering when the deceased’s wishes are not honored.

“The economic factor is what dictates, and I couldn’t hold a three-day wake,” Padua says. “But the mourning is the pain, and that never leaves. … My pain is mine. It’s no one’s fault.”

A traditional funeral in a public cemetery with all services included can cost more than 6,000 United States dollars. That is the equivalent of over three months of earnings for the average family in Puerto Rico, and it is twice the price of direct cremation, which leads many people to opt for the latter.

In 2010, a total of 29,357 people died, but in only 220 cases did the bereaved choose cremation, according to data compiled by the Puerto Rico Statistics Institute and provided to Global Press Journal. One decade later, in 2020, cremation was chosen in 13,657 cases out of a total of 32,223 deceased. That year saw the biggest jump, with 42% of the total deaths ending in cremation. In 2019, that figure was 36%. In 2021, it remained the same as the previous year.

Funeral home directors interviewed by Global Press Journal say choosing more affordable options is a trend that is here to stay. The cost of preserving tradition is high, and not everyone can afford it.

“Costs are prohibitive for everyone,” says Benjamín Rosario, the owner of Funeraria San Francisco, a funeral home. In response, he has adjusted the services he offers. Wakes that used to be held in people’s homes are now held at the funeral home, and they have been reduced to a maximum of 12 hours. “Less time, less water, less electricity means less expense,” he explains. These factors have contributed to a decline in funerary rites that were once commonplace.

expand image
expand slideshow

Coraly M. Cruz Mejías, GPJ Puerto Rico

Funeral homes have had to adjust their offerings to adapt to the needs of clientele who cannot afford elaborate funerals.

The emotional impact of changes

In the municipality of Aguada, where Rosario has his funeral home, it is still possible to see processions to the cemetery. However, as in the rest of the territory, group dynamics are changing, and the fact remains that not complying with the wishes of a loved one or one’s own wishes represents an additional emotional burden on those responsible for the final resting state of the departed.

Thanatologists highlight the fear and sadness that affect older people who tend not to discuss death or believe they will not have the funeral they had hoped for.

Changes in the time devoted to the final goodbye “have caused an emotional adjustment in which many people understand that they weren’t given [enough] time to say goodbye to the departed because they were not able to carry out the funerary rites that were customary to their community,” says thanatologist Diana Rodríguez. “This causes a slower and more painful mourning process.”

“It is frustrating for many people because they have their religious beliefs and don’t believe in cremation because it’s a sin,” says Ivetemarie Vázquez, the secretary of Aguada’s municipal cemetery. “They have to cremate and, for them, that’s something profound.”

expand image
expand slideshow

Coraly M. Cruz Mejías, GPJ Puerto Rico

José Pérez González, known as Sindicato, walks among hundreds of graves he has dug and built in his 40 years as a gravedigger at Cementerio Municipal de Aguada.

Rosario, the owner of the funeral home, says people do begin to accept the changes and adjust their emotions to the new circumstances the economy allows. While funerary rites are important for managing bereavement, the forms they take will change depending on both resources and beliefs, says thanatologist Ana Milagros García del Valle. “The emotions of the younger generations do not come solely from a place of caring for or burying the loved one but also of caring for themselves or protecting the environment,” she says. “A new concept of death itself is emerging.”

The customs performed after the burial are also undergoing changes.

“Many people have stopped coming to the cemetery. When you see the tombs there [covered in mildew], it’s because people stopped coming years ago,” says José Pérez González, 63, who prefers to be called Sindicato. He has been the gravedigger for his town in Aguada for 40 years and has witnessed burials ranging from the most picturesque to the most solitary.

“Right now, everyone is burning the dead,” he says pensively.

Sindicato says that, in addition to a lack of funds, mortuary rites are facing another challenge in Puerto Rico. The infrastructure of the cemeteries is reaching its limits, as is the case for Aguada’s municipal cemetery, which no longer has any more burial sites for sale. This means those who have the means to honor the traditions or their loved ones’ wishes will have to leave their communities to find a different cemetery, exhume loved ones who have already been buried in order to bury the more recently deceased, cremate and purchase a niche, or try a private cemetery at an even higher cost.

Padua places the ashes in a tomb his mother bought herself. The memory of her gives him comfort despite not honoring her final wishes. “I gave all I had and did all I could in life for her.”

Coraly Cruz Mejías is a Global Press Journal senior reporter based in Puerto Rico.


Shannon Kirby, GPJ, translated this story from Spanish.