When a colleague in the funeral business called from Venezuela asking to borrow a glass-sided hearse for the funeral of President Hugo Chávez in 2013, Colombian undertaker Luis Fernando Arango didn’t think twice about sending his snazziest car.
“There was a special interest in Venezuela to show the coffin and I had a glass-sided hearse that was perfect for that,” said Arango, director of the San Vicente funeral home in Medellín, who agreed to lend his 1998 customised Lincoln. “I was happy to do it. I felt like I was participating in a historic moment.”
But after carrying the body of the flamboyant and controversial Chávez in a procession through the crowded streets of Caracas to his final resting place, Arango’s hearse ended up being considered contraband and was sold at a public auction.
As soon as he agreed to loan the hearse, Arango said a Venezuelan air force plane arrived at the Medellín airport to pick it up. In the rush to get the hearse to Caracas for the funeral, some of the paperwork to make the temporary exportation of the vehicle legal went unsigned. “The government was facilitating it all so I thought there wouldn’t be any problem,” he says.
Watching the funeral procession Arango said he felt pride in knowing his hearse was carrying a historic figure through the tens of thousands of people who gathered to pay tribute.
For six months after the funeral, Arango negotiated with Venezuelan government and military officials who wanted him to sell them the car for their museum. But they never reached an agreement, Arango said, “so they told me I could pick up the car on the border in Cúcuta”.
That’s when Arango’s troubles began. Because the paperwork had not been completed correctly when the car left the country, Colombian border customs did not want to let Arango bring it back in. He eventually convinced the agents that the paperwork was in Medellín and he would sort it out there.
Seized and sold
But before he could do that, officials seized the car as contraband and sold it at public auction. Arango, who was legally barred from participating in the auction, had a third party bid for him. The starting price was roughly $10 000 but a collector started driving the price up.
“He thought he could sell it to the Venezuelans for a museum, not knowing that they had already decided against it,” Arango said.
The fight for the car drove the price up to about $45 000 so Arango let it go. Last month he bought back the car from the man who won the bidding war, for $60 000.
“It’s not fair having to buy what is already yours,” says Arango. “But it was important to recover the car for its historical value.”
Having the hearse that carried Chávez’s coffin has been good for business. “I have people come in and request that car specifically for their loved one’s funeral,” Arango said.
But Chávez was a divisive figure in his native Venezuela and neighbouring Colombia. Other customers have said they wouldn’t be caught dead in Chávez’s hearse. – © Guardian News & Media 2015