Lisbon, Portugal – Jose Santos and Eduardo Martins load the body of a woman into a mortuary freezer.
She had died recently of COVID-19, in a nursing home.
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Eduardo vigorously scrubs his hands and face with disinfectant. Jose does the same, puts on a mask, and then pulls it down to light a cigarette.
“This is essential to cope with all this,” Jose, 62, told Al Jazeera, surrounded by empty coffins at Funeraria Velhinho, a funeral home in Lisbon.
He has been working as an undertaker for 40 years, but Eduardo, who works with him most days, joined the profession just five months ago, in the middle of the pandemic.
He needed the work to support his family, including his 10-year-old daughter who is recovering from a stroke.
About 5,000 people are employed in Portugal’s funeral industry, and they have been working non-stop as the health crisis continues to grip the nation.
“At some point, we always had five bodies in the freezer. And it was in and out, in and out,” Jose said.
Remembering those days, Eduardo chipped in: “It was two weeks without even eating.”
As 2021 began, Portugal, with a population of about 10 million, saw an exponential rise in cases and deaths.
In January, the country registered the highest seven-day average rate of new cases per 100,000 people globally, according to data from Johns Hopkins University.
Daily averages in January were about 15,000 cases and almost 300 deaths, grim realities which pushed the national health service to its limit.
Hospitals across the country ran out of ICU beds and, eventually, morgue capacity.
In Lisbon, more than half of the dead, coronavirus victims included, are cremated.
But the 12 crematoria in the capital struggled to deal with the influx of bodies, which led to delays of up to nine days, said Carlos Almeida, who has worked in the sector for more than 30 years and runs ANEL, an industry association.
Paulo Carreira, director of the Servilusa funeral home in Lisbon, told Al Jazeera his company has doubled its freezer capacity from 49 to 97, and extended its opening times from 10am until 6pm, to 8am until midnight.
“Sometimes in the morning, the oven is still warm,” said Joao Lourenco, one of the workers at Servilusa, as he prepared the hearse at the end of a service.
That ceremony, a scaled-back affair due to physical distancing rules, was held near the backdoor of the crematory.
Only two family members attended. The coffin was laid on a metal cart, without any traditional decorations.
A priest made a brief prayer, competing with the sound of the furnace just metres away. A single wreath of flowers was placed in a corner.
According to the latest government-mandated guidelines, wakes are forbidden but direct family members can attend funerals, as long as they wear a mask and stay at least one metre away from the coffin.
Family members can view their loved one briefly during the funeral, but undertakers are forbidden from preparing the body’s “external appearance”, according to the law.
Jose Santos disagrees with the measures.
“We’ve received bodies [from the hospital morgues] that arrive here with their mouths open, almost unrecognisable. We have even received bodies with the mask still on. Where is the dignity there?
“What concerns me the most is the families, who can’t say goodbye. It hurts. It does. It’s not easy to see people suffering like that,” he said.
In another ceremony in Lisbon, Artur Palma, the owner of Funeraria Velhinho, raises a phone to record the scene – a coffin being transported in a van en route to the crematory.
He is on a video call with the family of the coronavirus victim; they observe the moment virtually.
“We are here to help the family, but funerals via WhatsApp, what have we come to? This is completely against our way of life,” Jose said.
Joana Soares, a psychologist at the Sao Joao Hospital in the northern region of Porto, said people working on the front lines are often at risk of burnout and serious mental health issues such as anxiety, depression and PTSD.
“The emotional erosion is much stronger. To realise that the family is suffering and won’t be able to say goodbye in a normal way, brings an anxious component to those people who are offering that service,” she told Al Jazeera by phone.
The number of cases and deaths in Portugal eased in the first two weeks of February. More than half a million people, mostly health workers and nursing home residents, have so far received the first dose of a vaccine.
But funeral industry workers are angry at the government for failing to prioritise them in the vaccination drive.
“What health authorities should have done was to vaccinate people on the front lines – and we are on the first lines but at the end of the line,” said Almeida, from ANEL.
For Jose, who has heart problems, entering nursing homes fills him with fear.
“The other day I went to a home and everyone, all 200 people, were infected,” he said.
“I am afraid to die. Everyone is afraid to die,” he said, as he prepared for a four-hour drive to collect a body from a hospital in Porto. “I do this because I like it and because the dead deserve some dignity.”