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Coronavirus: the pain of families prohibited from burying their dead in Italy

by ace
Coronavirus: the pain of families prohibited from burying their dead in Italy

When someone you love dies, saying goodbye for the last time means a lot.

But the coronavirus is stealing from Italians the chance to say goodbye to their loved ones.

The pandemic caused by the virus that emerged in China has taken away the dignity of the dead and aggravated the sadness of the living.

"This pandemic kills twice," says Andrea Cerato, who works at a funeral home in Milan.

"First, he isolates you from your loved ones right before he dies. So he doesn't allow anyone to come near you."

"Families are devastated and find it difficult to accept," adds Cerato.

Dying in isolation

Many victims of covid-19, a disease caused by the new coronavirus, are dying in hospital isolation without family or friends. Visits are prohibited because the risk of contagion is very high.

Although health officials say the virus cannot be transmitted posthumously, it can still survive on clothes for a few hours. This means that the corpses are being sealed immediately.

"Many families ask us if they can see the body one last time. But it is forbidden," says Massimo Mancastroppa, Cremona's undertaker.

The dead cannot be buried in their favorite and most elegant clothes. Instead, they are left with the dark anonymity of a hospital gown.

But Mancastroppa does what he can.

"We cover the corpse with the clothes the family gives us, as if we were wearing them," he says. "A shirt on top, a skirt on the bottom."

"They have no choice but to trust us"

In this unprecedented situation, these undertakers see themselves as surrogate families.

Substitute friends. Even substitute priests.

This is because people close to those who die from the virus are often quarantined.

"We take full responsibility for them," says Cerato.

"We send loved ones a picture of the coffin that will be used, then we take the corpse from the hospital and bury or cremate it. They have no choice but to trust us."

The most difficult thing for Cerato is not being able to alleviate the suffering of the mourners. Instead of telling families everything he could do, he is now forced to list everything he can no longer do.

"We cannot dress them, we cannot comb their hair, we cannot make them up. We cannot prepare them to look beautiful and at peace. It is very sad."

A duty to those who left

Like his father, Cerato is a funeral director and has been in the profession for 30 years.

He says he believes these little things are very important for the mourners.

"Stroking his cheek for the last time, holding his hand and seeing him look worthy. Not being able to do that is very traumatic."

Because of this pandemic, funeral directors are also unable to have any contact with the families of the dead.

Family members are still trying to pass handwritten notes, objects with sentimental value, drawings and poems, in the hope of being buried next to their loved ones.

But none of that will be put in the coffins.

Burying personal items is now illegal. A drastic measure, but taken to prevent the spread of the disease.

If someone dies at home, funeral directors are still allowed to enter – but they need to wear full protective gear: glasses, masks, gloves, coats.

It is a deeply distressing sight for someone who has just seen a loved one die.

But many undertakers are now quarantined. Some had to close their deals.

A major concern is that those who deal with the dead do not have enough masks or gloves.

"We have enough protective equipment to keep us going for another week," says Cerato.

"But when they are done, we will no longer be able to operate. And we are one of the largest funeral directors in the country. I can't even imagine how the others are dealing."

Prohibited funerals

A national emergency law has banned funerals in Italy to prevent the virus from spreading.

This is unprecedented for a country with such strong Catholic values.

At least once a day, Andrea buries a body and no one shows up to say goodbye – because everyone is quarantined.

"One or two people may be there during the funeral, but that is all," says Massimo. "No one feels able to say a few words; there is only silence."

Whenever he can, he tries to avoid this. Then he drives to a church with the coffin in the car, opens the trunk and asks a priest to make a blessing.

This is usually done in seconds. The next victim waits.

A country flooded with coffins

The mortuary industry is overburdened and the death toll continues to rise.

So far, Italy is the country with the most deaths from coronavirus – there are more than 6,000 in total.

"There is a line outside our funeral home in Cremona," says Andrea.

"It's almost like a supermarket."

Hospital morgues in northern Italy are packed with corpses.

"The hospital chapel in Cremona looks more like a warehouse," says Mancastroppa.

Many other coffins are accumulating in churches.

In Bergamo, which has the highest number of cases in Italy, the military had to intervene – the city's cemeteries are now full.

One night last week, residents watched in silence as an army truck convoy slowly drove more than 70 coffins through the streets.

Each contained the body of a friend or neighbor being taken to a nearby city for cremation.

Few images have been more shocking or poignant since the outbreak began.

'Soul transporters'

Doctors and nurses across the country were hailed as heroes, saviors at this time, which is one of the darkest in the history of Italy.

But funeral directors have not received recognition for what they are also doing.

"Many people see us only as carriers of souls," sighs Massimo.

He says that many Italians see his work the same way they see Charon, the sinister mythological boatman of the underworld who carries the souls of the newly deceased through a river that divides the world of the living from the world of the dead.

A thankless and unthinkable task in the eyes of many.

"But I can guarantee that all we want is to give dignity to the dead."

#Andratuttobene ("everything will be fine", in a free translation) is a hashtag that has gone viral in Italy since the crisis broke out. It comes with a rainbow emoji.

But at the moment there are no rainbows in sight. And while everyone prays for it, no one knows exactly when everything will be okay again.

* Illustrations by Jilla Dastmalchi

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