Things Were That Tough- Free Burial Plots at Pilon Cemetery

Alcalde (Mayor) José Dominador Bazán is the
man in the back row wearing a bow tie. The man in the
middle, of course, is the exiled President of Argentina at the time,
Juan Domingo Perón. Image courtesy of La Estrella.

The year 1950 not only marked the beginning of another decade, it highlighted the ever worsening economic conditions the Westindian Panamanians had to endure. With the RIF’s (Reduction in Force) letters from the Canal Zone appearing with ruthless frequency in more and more homes, things were getting pretty desperate. Particularly in the Atlantic side City of Colon, the jobless situation was felt with greater intensity. 

Many Westindian shop owners were closing or selling off their businesses and settling for whatever they could get out of it to enable them to either migrate to the United States or to Britain or go back to their island homes.

One area of human concern that was reaching fever pitch in Colon was the skyrocketing cost of burying their loved ones in Mt. Hope Cemetery; (Hmmm…, sounds familiar in our terribly depressed world economy doesn’t it?). In a sweeping move, Mayor José Dominador Bazan, a beloved figure in the hearts of many Westindians of Colon at the time, was moved by the plea of a mother wishing to bury her child who appealed to him to do something about the increase in the plot fee at Mt. Hope to $25.00. Her family, she pleaded, could not afford the staggering “tariff” increases that had just recently been instituted for burial at the cemetery.

The Alcalde moved swiftly to proclaim that free burial would be provided at Pilon Cemetery, a temporary answer to the grave hardship of many poor families looking for relief to this troubling situation. Following an announcement of an unbelievable 50% rate increase at Mt. Hope the City Council decided that free burial plots would be offered at the Pilon Cemetery which is about eight miles from the City of Colon, including hearse and transportation service for the bereaved family members.

The Council moved to pass a bill to appropriate $7,000 to acquire and build this new public cemetery since Mt. Hope was the only cemetery within the city. Of this amount $5,000 would go to purchasing the land and $2,000 would be dedicated to building the cemetery. Mayor Bazan and his aids put the Council under a great deal of pressure to push these measures to correct this disgraceful blot on a town of its population and importance.

The issue of the escalating costs of funerals and burials has become quite a dilemma for many families in our economically strapped hemisphere. It is a heartbreaking issue for the multitude of poor families but, increasingly, it has become an unsettling worry for middle class families who have no life insurance coverage for these crucial times in a family’s life.

Although the situation in Colon sixty years ago simply underlined a devastating trend in this traditionally neglected city, the issue of the rights of families to provide decent burial for their loved ones is becoming a more critical one. Today many persons trying to grapple with this problem have left instructions for their families to cremate their remains when the moment arrived, thus forcing many individuals who cling to Christian values or whose moral upbringing does not favor cremation of their dead to do something that goes totally against their precepts.

As late as the year 2004 the Corregidor of Pilon revealed that they haven’t the economic wherewithal to expand or improve services at Pilon Cemetery since they don’t have the budget and the cemetery doesn’t generate enough money. He therefore appealed to the families of the deceased not to place costly tombstones or monuments on the tombs as this will prevent the constant invasion and sacking by tomb robbers since they have not the economic means to provide dependable security at the cemetery. This only points up another very sad trend- desecration of cemeteries and general neglect of these burial places.

The parcel of land occupied by the Puerto Pilón Cemetery measures approximately 4 hectares and it long ago ceased to have room for any more burials of residents and of persons from neighboring towns.

This brings into focus the increasing and general ineptitude of City governments in many localities that have no foresight in their lack of planning to build more cemeteries and make the option of burying their dead more affordable for today’s economically strapped families.

This story continues.

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