May 10, 2021

A generation has died: Italian province struggles to bury its coronavirus dead

A generation has died: Italian province struggles to bury its coronavirus dead
Funeral workers transport the coffin of a coronavirus victim into a cemetery in Bergamo. Photograph: Flavio Lo Scalzo/Reuters

A generation has died: Italian province struggles to bury its coronavirus dead

Coffins awaiting burial are lining up in churches and the corpses of those who died at home are being kept in sealed-off rooms for days as funeral services struggle to cope in Bergamo, the Italian province hardest hit by the coronavirus pandemic.

As of Wednesday, Covid-19 had killed 2,978 across Italy, all buried or cremated without ceremony. Those who die in hospital do so alone, with their belongings left in bags beside coffins before being collected by funeral workers.

In Bergamo, a province of 1.2 million people in the Lombardy region, where 1,640 of the total deaths in the country have taken place, 3,993 people had contracted the virus by Tuesday. The death toll across the province is unclear, but CFB, the area’s largest funeral director, has carried out almost 600 burials or cremations since 1 March.

“In a normal month we would do about 120,” said Antonio Ricciardi, the president of CFB. “A generation has died in just over two weeks. We’ve never seen anything like this and it just makes you cry.”

There are about 80 funeral companies across Bergamo, each receiving dozens of calls an hour. A shortage of coffins as providers struggle to keep up with demand and funeral workers becoming infected with the virus are also hampering preparations.

Hospitals have adopted more stringent rules regarding the handling of the dead, who need to be placed in a coffin straight away without being clothed due to the risk of infection posed by their bodies. “Families can’t see their loved ones or give them a proper funeral, this is a big problem on a psychological level,” said Ricciardi. “But also because many of our staff are ill, we don’t have as many people to transport and prepare the bodies.”

A cemetery employee closes the gates behind a hearse at the Monumental cemetery of Bergamo
 coronavirus A cemetery employee closes the gates behind a hearse at the Monumental cemetery of Bergamo. Photograph: Piero Cruciatti/AFP via Getty Images

For those who die at home, the bureaucratic process is lengthier as deaths need to be certified by two doctors. The second is a specialist who would ordinarily have to certify the death no later than 30 hours after a person has passed away.

“So you have to wait for both doctors to come and at this time, many of them are also ill,” added Ricciardi.

Stella, a teacher in Bergamo, shared the story of one of the deceased with the Guardian. “Yesterday, an 88-year-old man died,” she said. “He’d had a fever for a few days. There was no way to call an ambulance because the line was always busy. He died alone in his room. The ambulance arrived an hour later. Obviously, nothing could be done. And since no coffins were available in Bergamo, they left him on the bed and sealed his room to keep his relatives from entering until a coffin could be found.”

Bergamo military coronavirus
coronavirus bergamo disease

Adding to the torment is the fact that relatives cannot visit their loved ones in hospital, or give them proper funerals.

“Usually you would be able to dress them and they would stay one night in the family home. None of this is happening,” said Alessandro, whose 74-year-old uncle died in Codogno, the Lombardy town where the outbreak began. “You can’t even see them to say goodbye, this is the most devastating part.”

The harrowing impact of the virus on Bergamo can be gleaned from the obituary section of the local newspaper L’Eco di Bergamo. On Friday, reader Giovanni Locatelli shared online footage comparing the newspaper’s obituary section on 9 February, when listings took up just one page, to a copy dated 13 March, when 10 pages were needed to commemorate the dead. On Sunday, Il Messaggero posted a video of coffins lined up in a church.

“We have asked for support from funeral companies nationally as deaths have risen exponentially,” said Pietro Bonaldi, the director of Lia, a business association in Bergamo. “We have reached capacity. And unfortunately, in recent days a lot of funeral workers have become sick with the virus and so can’t work.”

Elsewhere in Italy, there have been cases of funeral companies refusing to take bodies, for example in Naples, where the body of Teresa Franzese, 47, was kept at home for almost two days before it was collected.

All religious ceremonies, including funerals, masses and weddings, are banned amid the lockdown. However, two priests, one near Venice and another in the southern Campania region, were charged for officiating a funeral.

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