Ecuadoreans bid farewell to the dead in virtual ceremonies

By Yury Garcia

By Yury Garcia

GUAYAQUIL, Ecuador (Reuters) - Ecuadorean journalist Augusto Iturburu's could not visit him in the hospital during his two-week battle with coronavirus, and was unable to give him a traditional burial as the disease ravaged the country's largest city of Guayaquil.

The Iturburu family instead held a virtual ceremony this week to honor Augusto, thanks to an online service created in response to a pandemic that has overwhelmed the country's health services and at times left bodies in the streets for hours.

"No member of our family could enter the cemetery to say goodbye to him," said Iturburu's brother Nelson in a telephone interview. "So I thought it would be nice to participate in this memorial, so that everyone can remember my brother Augusto."

Ecuadorean media company GK this week launched the service called "Voices of Memory," which creates websites using photos of those who died and messages from friends and family, who will be able to visit the sites for several weeks.

The service is open to anyone in the country, said Maria Sol Borja, who is in charge of the project. But it has been principally used by families in Guayaquil, where the vast majority of cases and deaths have taken place.

Ecuador as of Thursday had reported 24,934 coronavirus infections and 900 deaths. Another 1,453 are suspected to have died of COVID-19.

But in the province of Guayas, where Guayaquil is located, the total number of deaths from all causes reached 13,000 in March and April, compared with around 4,000 in the same period in 2019, according to official data.

The government in mid-March banned mass gatherings including religious ceremonies and vigils. Funeral homes are only authorized to transport bodies from morgues to cemeteries.

Families complain that they cannot obtain the remains of deceased relatives, and in some cases say they have received misidentified bodies.

Other simply receive a box of ashes from health authorities and feel they needed some type of farewell ceremony.

"We are processing all that is happening, it is new, it scares us, we do not understand it," said Gabriela Valarezo, 30, a graphic designer who lost her father-in-law to coronavirus. "Losing someone and not being able to be near them is very hard."

(Writing by Alexandra Valencia and Brian Ellsworth; Editing by Alistair Bell)