By Natalie Whittle
Natalie is editor of The Glasgow Papers, and runs The Outwith Agency in Govanhill
When the call came a few weeks ago, the job was arranged: a black Mercedes van set off with two drivers. It sped from northern Romania to southern Italy to pick up a body – another victim of the Covid 19 pandemic. Laid out in a mortuary near Naples, the deceased was thousands of miles from Romanian home soil. Raducu Breaban, a specialist undertaker, was dispatched to bring them back. There can be no stopping: Breaban and his colleague took turns day and night at the wheel, the coffin refrigerated in the back for its long return journey.
The vehicle is one of a fleet owned by Liviu Funerar Expres, Mr Breaban’s overland repatriation service, which operates from a small town in Suceava county, near the border with Ukraine. In this quiet northern territory, dotted with mountains and monasteries, the business finds itself witness to a crisis, driving from Suceava out across the continent, retrieving the victims of a disease that can kill anywhere.
As the hours passed on the Italian job, there was no peace: the drivers’ phones were “ringing off the hook with people asking for updates”, and as the motorway signs changed languages the van stopped and started for the police filters that are now “everywhere”. But when they arrived at their destination, they were alone.
“We found a country that was barren. We thought there might be a few places open, but there was nowhere to even get a sandwich. Sometimes on the highway we were on our own for four hours – there were no other cars. It’s very sad, [the coronavirus crisis] feels like a huge uncertainty.”
While many industries have seized up or faltered in the coronavirus economy, overland repatriation is facing unprecedented demand. Spotting “a need for the service” three years ago, Mr Breaban set up Liviu Funerar Expres to serve the Romanian diaspora who were living, working – and dying – in greater number in Europe, following the removal of EU restrictions on Romanian and Bulgarian migration and labour in 2014.
“We are making more money but every surrounding aspect has been more difficult; there is fear among my staff, some people have quit”
Liviu’s trade started slowly – about three or four jobs per month – but ticked up steadily. In December 2019, when the first case of Sars-Cov2 was reported in Wuhan, China, the fleet brought 15 bodies back to Romania. By April this year, as the pandemic spread, Liviu had doubled its caseload to 30 repatriations per month. Most of the pick-ups have been from the UK, followed by Italy – the two European countries hit hardest by the virus.
“We were not really ready for this kind of increase,” says Mr Breaban, who had added two cars to the fleet just before the crisis hit. “As things stand we tried to honour most requests with the cars we have at our disposal.” Though business is robust, Mr Breaban says he is “looking forward to a time when [the crisis] is at an end… we are making more money but every surrounding aspect has been more difficult; there is fear among my staff, some people have quit, and I have doubled my staff’s wages. All our drivers have young children at home, we’re aware it’s a risk.”
“Our work is always quite hard and a little sad but I find the fact that they [victims of Covid 19] can’t have proper funerals incredibly sad”
For bereaved families, it is costly: a Liviu repatriation is around €3000, including the coffin, transport, storage of the body and the necessary paperwork and registrations. (The body cannot be released without a “safe to travel” certificate, issued to the undertaker by the relevant mortuary.) Funeral arrangements are made separately. Pentecostal Christianity is observed devoutly in Romania, and a burial is often preceded by a “laying out” of the body in church for the family to view; a strict impossibility today. Close family who set off home to Romania around the same time as the body are not at the graveside; they grieve in quarantine, without saying goodbye.
“Our work is always quite hard and a little sad but I find the fact that they [victims of Covid 19] can’t have proper funerals incredibly sad. Bringing home the body for the proper celebration with respect and the last honours was a reward for us; now people are distraught.”
Sorana Goga works for the Govanhill Housing Association, an organisation that serves a Glasgow neighbourhood known, for its ethnic complexity, as a Scottish “Ellis Island”. Ms Goga is a liaison for the sizeable Roma population in Govanhill, with a caseload of problems related to landlords, benefits and education. In recent weeks she has been one of the many callers to Mr Breaban’s phone, so far arranging two repatriations from Glasgow.
“Romanian funeral rites are centred around burial rather than cremation – cremation is seen as unpalatable,” she says. “The idea of not being able to show a loved one respect [at a burial] is a source of horror.” When first asked for help by a Govanhill Roma family who lost a member to Covid 19, she researched the cost of the cheapest burial in the UK – around £4,000, which was money that could not be found: “People died suddenly and there is no way to prepare for it.” The state will contribute towards a funeral if funds are not available privately, providing a grant of around £1600 for those already on benefits, “enough for cremation but not burial”.
“You use all your money and put yourself in debt, but you are buried in your own village, so that’s what people are trying to do”
Repatriation to Romania, part-funded by asking friends and the community for help, is seen as the better option: “You use all your money and put yourself in debt, but it’s still cheaper than here [in the UK], and you are buried in your own village, so that’s what people are trying to do.”
Then comes the paperwork. “The registrar’s office are working from home, so for a death registration you give details over phone and do a signature over the phone.” While families try to raise money for burial, the mortuary has to wait, but can’t do so indefinitely. “It depends, [for a small fee per day] they keep the body but eventually you have to do something. People have been kind, though, people do make Glasgow.”
A burial in the homeland is some consolation, but doesn’t cut the pain of not being able to say last words. Mr Breaban says: “There are big problems with people not allowed to see their loved ones in the mortuary to say goodbye and people are incredibly distressed at this – the coffin is sealed.”
“Most of the time you find out their stories, who they were, hearing different things about their lives. It is difficult to carry all that knowledge about who you’re carrying home”
Ms Goga recalls a recent Covid 19 case that took the life of a Roma man who was “not particularly old”. At first admitted to hospital with “medium” symptoms, he was never seen again by his family. She says “the family is not allowed to wash the body or use the clothes they might have prepared for them, or use possessions like wedding rings. It is difficult to get closure without seeing the body. The daughter tried to plead with the mortuary to even take a photo of her father, to know for sure it was him.”
On his way to the mortuary in Glasgow a few weeks ago, Mr Breaban picked up another body in London – the father of eight children who “had felt ill and called the hospital twice but eventually when he called the ambulance, it was too late. It is hard not to get emotionally involved. Most of the time you find out their stories, who they were, hearing different things about their lives. It is difficult to carry all that knowledge about who you’re carrying home.”
“There has been a huge exodus of people who are leaving stable lives they’ve worked hard to obtain, with uncertainty about whether to come back”
Before the pandemic, “the coffin would have been taken to the church. That is now forbidden; just a few words from the priest and that’s it.” No music, no flowers. And at the graveside, instead of a spouse or son or daughter, a more distant face from the family.
Many families are following the dead home from Glasgow, but other Roma are leaving for practical reasons. “A huge amount of Romanians in Govanhill have left because they’re scared of the virus, or they couldn’t afford to pay rent,” Ms Goga says. Where people are employed in places such as car washes or takeaways, they may not get furloughed; private landlords, too, may not be willing to reprieve or delay payment of the rent. In this context, leaving the UK may look like the better option. “Maybe the parents have a house in Romania and food is cheaper,” Ms Goga says. “There has been a huge exodus of people who are leaving stable lives they’ve worked hard to obtain, with uncertainty about whether to come back.”
Miro Cuba, secretary of Ando Glaso, a charity that promotes Roma cultural talent in the city, also sees the return to Romania as far from an end to the trauma. “We know of five people who died from the virus in the Romanian community in Glasgow, it’s created quite a big scare.” Even as people arrive home, “they’re not going to be welcome in Romania, but they still consider it a better option. Any people coming from abroad are considered [in Romania] as carriers of coronavirus. It just amplifies the discrimination [against Roma people].”
There is another, equally fragile migration that crosses Romanian borders. “At a time when many communities are told to stay at home, the Romanian state has allowed agricultural workers to go abroad,” Mr Breaban notes. “Conditions are rough and people have been overworked.” A few weeks ago, he picked up two people who, having gone to find work, died from coronavirus in Germany. The worst way imaginable to do so, but at least they came home.
With thanks to Sorana Goga for translation assistance and Thriving Places Glasgow