Via Financial Times

Don Gabriele Bernardelli, a 58-year-old priest in the Italian town Castiglione D’Adda, has lost more than 60 members of his parish to the coronavirus pandemic. He could not give a proper funeral to any of them.

“Now that funerals are banned, my deputy parish priest and I are the ones who are there to pray for the dead on behalf of the whole community,” he said in a phone interview on Thursday. “Many of my parishioners weren’t even able to talk to their loved ones before they passed away — they only see a sealed coffin, if they are lucky. We can only be close to those who are still here and pray with them. We can only have faith.”

The global pandemic has brought death to thousands, and grief to thousands more. But it has also forced a radical change in the way those left behind are mourning their dead — upending rituals and traditions that have provided comfort and reassurance for generations.

All over Europe, authorities have issued orders to cancel, shorten or curtail funerals. In Italy and Spain, the two worst-affected countries on the continent and where Catholic rites are an entrenched part of social life, governments have imposed drastic measures in response to the sudden surge in deaths.

Italy, where public funerals are now banned across the country, has resorted to bringing in the armed forces to evacuate bodies from hospitals. In Madrid, local authorities have converted a popular ice-skating rink into a temporary morgue. On Thursday, the regional government banned all wakes in the Spanish capital, citing the “extraordinary increase” in the number of bereavements. 

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A priest officiates as municipal workers lower the coffin of a Covid-19 victim at El Salvador cemetery in Vitoria, Spain, on Friday
A priest officiates as municipal workers lower the coffin of a Covid-19 victim at El Salvador cemetery in Vitoria, Spain, on Friday © Vincent West/Reuters

Even in Germany, where casualties have been relatively low, undertakers and churches are under strict orders to change their practices: according to official guidance, no more than 10 people are allowed to attend a burial. Mourners must keep a distance of at least 1.5m from one another, and must neither shake hands nor console the bereaved with a hug. The rules apply to all burials, even if the deceased was not infected with coronavirus.

Axel Hahn, the director of a funeral parlour in Mannheim, said he supported the new strictures, but also voiced regret that many of the traditional gestures and symbols of mourning had now become impossible.

“We try to give people the chance to say their farewells. These are incredibly important moments: to see the face of the deceased one last time, to touch your father’s cold hand, or to place some flowers or a picture into the grave. All these things help you to understand and feel what has happened. And they are no longer possible in all cases, even though we try every day.”

German undertakers are seeking to secure supplies of protective equipment and disinfectant in anticipation of a rise in casualties. The Robert Koch Institute, the country’s leading public health body, has warned undertakers to treat the bodies of Covid-19 victims as contagious, and urged workers to take special precautions.

Germany’s federation of undertakers has lobbied regional governments to declare its members a systemically relevant profession, in order to ease their access to certain hard-to-source goods. Baden-Württemberg, Mr Hahn’s home state, is one of several regions that have granted their request.

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“We have to protect our employees, and we have to protect the relatives,” said Stephan Neuser, secretary-general of the German federation of undertakers. Some funeral parlours, he added, were experimenting with video recordings and live streams. For now, however, some form of joint mourning is still possible.

“What we are seeing in Italy is really an extreme situation,” said Mr Neuser. “We can only hope that this won’t happen in Germany.”

Giorgio Gori, mayor of Bergamo — the Italian town north-east of Milan which is at the epicentre of the European outbreak — said undertakers in Lombardy were no longer able to deal with the surge in deaths.

“Lombardy had to ask undertakers from other regions to take the bodies of some of the victims [of Covid-19] because we couldn’t handle them. Our morgues are full and the crematorium ovens are constantly operating,” he told the Financial Times in a video call.

A pallbearer, right, helps a priest give the last blessing to a coffin during a funeral service at the cemetery of Bolgare, Lombardy, on Monday
A pallbearer, right, helps a priest give the last blessing during a funeral service at the cemetery of Bolgare, Lombardy, on Monday © Piero Cruciatti/AFP/Getty 

In Bergamo, the victims are no longer dressed after death. Health regulations issued by local authorities, oblige funeral homes to seal the bodies in a “containment bag”, naked, with the hospital coat or with the clothes worn at the time of death, and immediately seal the coffin. Alternatively, a sheet soaked in disinfectant is used to wrap the bodies.

Vanda Piccioli, who runs a company offering funeral honours services in the nearby town of Alzano Lombardo, said she had been overwhelmed by requests and had had to turn several down. “We have never seen anything like that. There isn’t anything that isn’t sad. We are like sponges in this situation,” she said.

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“Now we can only honour the dead through small gestures,” said Antonio Ricciardi, the president of the association of funeral service companies in Bergamo. “There are those who asked us to recover a ring, those who ask us to take one last photo of their beloved ones before we seal the coffin.”