Italy's coronavirus victims face death alone then a long wait for funerals

A patient on a stretcher is transported by medical workers at the Columbus hospital unit of the Gemelli hospital in Rome, Italy, on March 16, 2020. PHOTO: EPA-EFE

ROME (NYTIMES) - At around midnight last Wednesday (March 11), Mr Renzo Carlo Testa, 85, died from the coronavirus in a hospital in the northern Italian town of Bergamo.

Five days later, his body was still lying in a coffin, one of scores lined head to toe in the church at the local cemetery, which is itself closed to the public.

His wife of 50 years, Madam Franca Stefanelli, would like to give him a proper funeral. But traditional funeral services are illegal throughout Italy now, part of the national restrictions against gatherings and going out that have been put in place to try to stem the spread of Europe's worst outbreak of the coronavirus.

In any case, she and her sons could not attend anyway because they are themselves sick and in quarantine.

"It's a strange thing," Madam Stefanelli, 70, said, struggling to explain what she was going through. "It's not anger. It's impotence in the face of this virus."

The coronavirus epidemic raging through Italy has already left streets empty and shops shuttered as 60 million Italians are essentially under house arrest. There are the exhausted doctors and nurses toiling day and night to keep people alive. There are children hanging drawings of rainbows from their windows and families singing from their balconies.

But the ultimate metric of pandemics and plagues is the bodies they leave behind. In Italy, with the oldest population in Europe, the toll has been heavy, with more than 2,100 deaths, the most outside of China. On Monday alone, more than 300 people died.

And the bodies are piling up in the northern region of Lombardy, especially in the province of Bergamo. With 3,760 total cases reported Monday, an increase of 344 cases from the day before, according to officials, it is at the centre of the outbreak.

Hospital morgues there are inundated. Bergamo's mayor, Mr Giorgio Gori, issued an ordinance that closed the local cemetery this week for the first time since World War II, though he guaranteed that its mortuary would still accept coffins. Many of them had been sent to the Church of All Saints in Bergamo, located in the closed cemetery, where scores of waxed wooden coffins form a macabre line for cremations.

"Unfortunately, we don't know where to put them," said Brother Marco Bergamelli, one of the priests at the church. He said that with hundreds dying each day, and with each body taking more than an hour to cremate, there was an awful backlog. "It takes time, and the dead are many."

An emergency national law issued last week banned civil and religious ceremonies, including funerals, to prevent the spread of the virus. Officials have allowed priests to say a prayer at burials attended by just a few of the bereaved.

In his brief prayers to family members, who often wore masks, Brother Bergamelli said that he tried to give consolation and hope and urged people to be close, if permitted, to those who were alone. "This tragedy reminds us to love life," he said.

Mr Testa's death notice appeared last Friday in a local paper, L'Eco di Bergamo. The paper usually has a single page of death notices. That day, there were 10 pages, and the rest was dedicated to the virus devastating Bergamo.

"For us, it's a trauma, an emotional trauma," said Mr Alberto Ceresoli, who edits the paper. "These are people who die alone and who are buried alone. They didn't have someone hold their hand, and the funerals have to be tiny, with a quick prayer from the priest. Many of the close relatives are in quarantine."

Mr Giorgio Valoti, mayor of nearby Cene, died last Friday. He was 70. His son, Alessandro, said that 90 people died the same day in Bergamo's main hospital.

The virus "is massacring this valley; every family is losing someone dear to them", he said. "In Bergamo, so many bodies are piling up they don't know what to do with them."

In Fiobbio, a small village outside Bergamo, an ambulance came to collect Mr Luca Carrara's father, 86, last Saturday. The next day, another one came for his mother, 82. Mr Carrara, 52, couldn't visit them in hospital and stayed home in quarantine, where he has begun showing symptoms of the virus. On Tuesday, his parents died. Their bodies are held in the hospital morgue awaiting cremation.

"I am sorry that they are still there," he said. "Still alone."

Mr Luca di Palma, 49, said his father, Vittorio, 79, died last Wednesday night and that the funeral home he called told him that it had no space for the body. Instead, workers delivered to his house a coffin, some candles, a cross and a mortuary refrigerator so that he could lay his father out in the living room. He said nobody came to pay respects, out of fear of contagion, though his father had died before he could be confirmed as a coronavirus case, and doctors had refused to perform a postmortem swab test.

Last Saturday, Mr di Palma followed a hearse carrying his father's body to a cemetery in Bergamo, where a caretaker let them in and locked the gates behind. A priest arrived to offer a brief prayer over the hearse, its trunk lifted. Mr di Palma said his father wanted to be cremated, but the wait was long. "Painful," he said.

In a country where many learn in school about the dreaded Monatti who, preceded by the ringing of a little bell, retrieved corpses on carts during the 17th-century Milan plague, the amassing of dead bodies seems out of another time.

Mr Alessandro Bosi, secretary of the National Federation of Funeral Homes, said that the virus had also caught the mortuary industry by surprise, with those who handle the dead not having sufficient masks or gloves. While health authorities say they do not believe that the virus can be transmitted posthumously, Mr Bosi said that a corpse's lungs often released air when being moved.

"We have to consider them in the way we would treat infectious individuals, and take the same care," he said. "If we're not the ones taking away the dead," he added, "then they'd have to call in the army."

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