Awaiting return of crash victims a grim business
'Dios mío, there will be a lot of people to bury.'
LUISA YANEZ AND PAUL BRINKLEY-ROGERS
SANTO DOMINGO -- At the sprawling grounds of Christ the Redemeer cemetery on the outskirts of the city, the tragedy of American Airlines Flight 587 is about to overwhelm gravediggers, masons and mausoleum designers like Ramón Martínez.
Less than a week after the New York-Santo Domingo-bound flight
slammed into a section of Queens killing 175 Dominicans, the 72-year-old
cemetery craftsman is
``Dios mío, there will be a lot of people to bury,'' said Martínez, a veteran among the entrepreneurs who camp in and around the island nation's cemeteries clamoring to be hired to prepare final resting places.
Skilled cemetery workers like Martínez design and build above-ground, traditional concrete multi-unit mausoleums, or nichos, favored by Dominican families.
Many of the crash victims will end up in his care, or with the other craftsmen like him, Martínez suspects.
With older cemeteries full, the government last week designated Christ the Redemeer, or Cristo Redentor -- and a second cemetery -- Christ the Savior or Cristo Salvador in the town of San Isidro -- as the official burial sites for the remains of more than 100 of the 175 Dominican nationals expected to be brought back from the states.
But that won't be for a few days. For now, at Christ the Redemeer, Martínez and his crew patiently spend the day with the dead, waiting for the grieving families to arrive.
The men sit on plastic lawn chairs, or milk cartons -- shovels nearby -- just inside the high arched entrance to the cemetery.
An arriving car prompts Martínez to fly to his feet, in case it brings prospective customers.
``This is my open-air office,'' said Martínez, a neatly
dressed man in white baseball cap and sneakers and the leader and spokesman
for his six-man crew. He's been
burying people for the last 22 years. He can't remember how many ditches he's dug or how many mausoleums he's built.
When clients beckon him from their car window, fast-walking Martínez becomes the PR man. He hands out his business card. It identifies him as a ``master contractor'' of the structures, which give cemeteries the appearance of being miniature residential neighborhoods.
Martínez goes by the nickname `Timacoi,'' a Spanish-izing of Tim McCoy, a star of silent western movies. In Latin America, the moniker is given to brave, adventuresome types. ``Everybody knows me by Timacoi,'' Martínez said with sheepish grin.
At 50, he gave up construction work and began a new career in cemetery work -- and is glad he did.
``Here, there are always customers,'' he says, with a shrug. ``I think it's an honorable profession. It is my life.''
This work has provided for his wife and three sons, one of whom is following in his footsteps.
Martínez is a master craftsman at building the mausoleums favored by the country's middle and working class. Starting price is about $210 in U.S. dollars, depending on the complexity of the design and construction.
In the paupers' section, Martínez will gladly construct
a simple chalk-white box-like concrete resting place with a cross on it
for as little as $50. There, graves are
underground and hard to distinguish, with epitaphs lettered in black magic marker on makeshift tombstones.
But in the better section of Christ the Redeemer, Martínez points out his latest work -- a marble and sand colored-unit with a slanted roof and giant metal rings designating each of its eight niches. The design gives it the appearance of a giant dresser drawer.
Special touches he utilizes include security bars on the small windows, a glass front door, cordoned-off with heavy knee-high chains or even gates.
The interiors of the mausoleums look like tiny chapels.
They usually include a bench so that the bereaved can sit, pray, and pay their respects in peace. There are usually small altars for the dead, adorned with photographs and plastic flowers.
Martínez said sometimes families come with a blueprint
of what they want him to build. Sometimes they leave the design and concept
up to him, which he says he
``Whatever the customers want, I do,'' he says. ``You build these things for the dead, but it's really for the living. I learned that a long time ago.'' He and his crew may take 15 to 20 days to complete a major structure. Bodies may be kept in temporary plots until the work is complete, he said.
Martínez said the death of a relative often prompts a family
to purchase the multi-niche mausoleum. He suspects that will happen in
the next few days as the crash
victims make it home.
And that's when the work will come his way, he suspects.
Adriano de Leon, Christ the Redemeer's administrator, said families
who lost loved ones in the air tragedy began making pilgrimages to buy
lots immediately after the
disaster. ``Our mayor told us to facilitate things for the families -- to make things easy for them, even when it comes to the payment,'' de Leon said.
SONG OF IRONY
The mayor of Santo Domingo is Johnny Ventura, the singer who coincidently recorded a song five years ago celebrating the joy of those coming home from New York on Flight 587.
At the more modest Christ the Savior cemetery, Jesus Manuel Guerro arrived to make burial plans for his nephew, crash victim Jose Francisco Lora, 40.
``We don't know when he'll be flown back or who will pay, but we wanted to be ready,'' Guerro said. ``I bought him a plot at the cemetery. We'll have the viewing at home,'' he said.
Another man came to buy three plots for a female relative who perished with her two children. They planned to build a mausoleum with four niches. The idea is for the fourth spot to be occupied by the husband when he dies, said cemetery spokeswoman Isabel Mercedes Reyes.
Keyla Concepción said her grandmother, Carmen Medina, will rest there, too, in a one-person plot. ``My father flew to New York to bring her body back,'' she said, choking back tears.
Martínez said he and his crew will be ready when the bodies take their final ride home.
``I expect I'll get a lot of business,'' he said. ``But I would have preferred to have things go differently for my people on that flight.''