Vera Lucia Marchioro recalls a morgue employee clicking through photos on a computer screen until a face appeared that could have been Luiz, her 25-year-old son who had disappeared the day before. She wasn't sure, she said, because of the swelling.
"Does he have any tattoos?" Marchioro asked.
When the employee said no, the grief-stricken mother decided to continue her search at the five other government-run morgues spread across Sao Paulo. Luiz had several tattoos, so the face on the screen that made her heart twinge couldn't be him, she thought.
Little did she know, but the 60-day search ahead of her would eventually lead back to the same morgue and body. More than a year later, however, her travails have yet to end. Morgue employees called her last March to identify the body using a photo of a tattoo on the arm, but the remains had already been buried in an unmarked grave, which authorities have refused to open.
"From what [morgue employees] have told me up until today, I don't know what I should believe," Marchioro said recently.
Government officials say they don't know how many people without identification are buried each year in Sao Paulo. In the last 15 years, the bodies of 3,000 people who had identifying documents were buried in unmarked graves here, according to the state's missing persons program.
Bodies that cannot be identified or have suffered a violent death — with or without ID — are sent to the closest Forensic Institute morgue. But regardless of where the bodies end up, members of several families in Brazil's largest city expressed frustration in interviews over the lack of resources and information they ware afforded during their searches.
Bodies held at a city morgue are usually buried after 72 hours, officials say. At the coroner's office, where there is more space, authorities try to keep corpses for 10 days, according to the agency's vice director, Dr. Carlos Augusto Pasqualucci.
The city's morgues came under fire last July when a news station broadcast images of 15 bodies lying side by side on metal tables at one morgue because all 38 refrigeration units were occupied. The situation has not only taken the dignity of the dead, family members say, but could also cause a public health problem. Hospital das Clinicas, home to the University of Sao Paulo's medical school and the central coroner's office, is less than half a block away, leaving patients there susceptible to disease-carrying flies.
"There are fewer refrigeration units than necessary, there are putrid bodies kept outside these units, there are fly catchers — I don't know how they are authorized by health inspectors — that are just like an electrified wire that zaps them," said Eliana Vendramini, the prosecutor who runs the missing persons program, which is investigating conditions in the city morgues. There's nowhere for doctors [who work overtime] to sleep."
Vendramini has been working to help the families of missing people since she started the program in November 2013. There were 13,068 open cases that year. The program also assists in identifying bodies that haven't been claimed.
The biggest problem, she says, is the lack of communication among organizations involved in finding missing people. There is no way, for example, to cross-reference information held by different entities, including the six city morgues, the coroner's office, the police department and other organizations. She and her team are working on a database, scheduled to be ready in July, so that the agencies can share information.
For Marchioro, it's too late. Several of her questions are still unanswered, she says: Why didn't the morgue employee show her photos of her son's tattoos? Why was Luiz buried in an unmarked grave in Perus, a cemetery known for mass burials an hour north of the city center, 19 days after he was found when the standard is 72 hours? What happened to his body during those extra 16 days?
The treatment of bodies buried at the Perus cemetery, also known as Dom Bosco, has come into question, with one report of a casket falling open as it was tossed into a shallow grave. The city police's organized-crime unit is also investigating whether organs were illegally taken from unidentified bodies at the coroner's office to sell to medical researchers.
Marchioro says she wonders whether any of indignities could have happened to her son's body, which still lies in an unmarked grave in Perus. Government officials have refused to let Marchioro exhume the body and transfer it to the family plot.
"I'll truly believe that is my son they buried there the day they let me have him back," she said.
Vendramini hopes her work can help prevent future mistakes.
"Everyone wants to work together. But when it comes to the past, no one wants to take responsibility," Vendramini said. "We have to care. We should care. One day it could be any one of us."
Langlois is a special correspondent.