More than 6,000 people in Italy have now died from COVID-19 and in Bergamo, a city on the southern slopes of the Alps that has been hit hard, the city's crematorium has been operating around the clock. But it still can't keep up. The army recently had to transport dozens of caskets to nearby cities for cremation. In some places, burials are taking place one after the other, with priests quickly blessing one victim before moving on to the next.
The government has banned conventional funerals. The country's civil protection organization, Protezione Civile, is keeping watch on cemeteries to make sure that families don't come close to each other or exchange hugs. Usually, they can't attend the funerals anyway because they are quarantined at home. The following are accounts gathered from five people: family and friends of the deceased, a priest and a funeral home director.
"Everyone here has friends and family who have died from COVID-19"
Michela Zanchi, 34, lost her uncle to COVID-19. She lives in Zogno, a small town of 9,000 residents not far from Bergamo. Six to seven people die of the novel coronavirus in the town each day. Normally, the church bells are rung in town whenever someone dies, but given the number of people passing away, the local priest has begun ringing the bell just once a day for all of them.
Everyone here has friends and family who have died from COVID-19. As do I. My uncle, Angelo Lazzarini, is now dead. He was 80 years old and thus at high risk. We are forced to sit at home as our loved ones die. We weren't able to be with my uncle; we couldn't even visit. Once a day, a doctor would call from the clinic. Shortly before my uncle died, the doctor actually had good news for us, saying that Angelo could once again breathe without the help of a respirator. But one day after that, he was dead.
The crematorium in Bergamo is overloaded, so my uncle was cremated 200 kilometers away in Padua. It's crazy. When my cousin's best friend died, he was even brought all the way to a crematorium in Turin.
The ashes of the dead are then brought back home, where the remains are interred. Only the closest family members are allowed to be present when the priest delivers last rites. There is no dignified burial, no funeral procession.
The catastrophe simply won't stop. My mother has had a high fever for a week, and now she has developed additional symptoms, like a strong cough and breathing difficulties. We called the outpatient corona emergency hotline, but the doctors told my mother that she had to stay home in bed because there wasn't a bed available for her in the hospital. They gave her an oxygen concentrator and some pills and told her that she needed to remain completely isolated from the family. I live two kilometers away, but I can't go visit her. We don't even know for certain if my mother is actually suffering from the coronavirus because she wasn't tested. Only the most extreme cases are tested here.
The pharmacies are sold out of everything: They have no face masks, no gloves and no alcohol for disinfection. Ambulance sirens can be heard all day long. Three of the five family doctors in town have been infected by coronavirus themselves, which is why military doctors have arrived to help. The church publishes the names of the dead each day on its Facebook page.
"In their final hours, they can't look anyone in the face. Everyone is wearing masks"
Monsignore Giulio Dellavite is general secretary of the Bergamo Bishopric. Sixteen priests in his diocese have already died from the coronavirus since March 1, with 20 more currently in the hospital. The survivors and the healthy are extremely busy tending to the dying and their families, under the most difficult conditions. For weeks, Dellavite has been trying to somehow keep up with all the deaths in his parishes.
We have a huge problem with the dying. They are isolated in the hospital and strictly off limits. Our priests are not allowed to visit them. And the families of the sick are quarantined at home, so our priests can only visit them wearing protective clothing. This caution is a gesture of brotherly love: Otherwise our priests could become infected or unwittingly spread the virus themselves.
But they can't be everywhere, so our bishops have proposed allowing children and grandchildren to bless their sick parents and grandparents for as long as they remain at home. When someone dies at home, a priest wearing a face mask and gloves could theoretically perform the final rites. But that only rarely happens.
And in hospitals? The dying only see doctors and nurses in protective suits. In their final hours, they can't even look anyone in the face. Everybody is wearing masks. Making telephone calls in the intensive care unit is also not possible. It is deeply distressing.
Doctors have told us with tears in their eyes of mortally ill patients pleading for last rites because nobody else is allowed to come see them. Now, they and the nurses aren't just responsible for their medical treatment, but also for their spiritual well-being. The Lord uses all hands in times of need.
In families, it often goes like this: Someone gets sick, a family member calls the Red Cross and the patient is then picked up by ambulance. The family members often don't know to which hospital their mother or father has been taken. Then, at some point, they receive a call with news that their loved one has died and are told that the sealed casket will be delivered to this or that morgue. Or they are told where the victim has already been buried. People can't even see their mother or father after they have died. They just disappear. It is terrible. In response, we have set up a telephone hotline in the bishopric where 70 priests, nuns, laypeople and psychologists can offer sympathy and support.
At the cemeteries, our priests can only bless the coffins at the graveside and briefly pray with family members -- if any are there at all. When somebody dies of coronavirus, it is frequently the case that the entire family is quarantined. In those instances, no family members are able to attend the burial.
"They cannot say goodbye to their loved ones"
On March 4, Giuseppe Acerboni, who lives in the mountain village of Vendrogno, not far from Lake Como, called his family doctor. He told the doctor that he'd been suffering from a high fever for several days and that he wanted to be tested for COVID-19. He was taken to the hospital in Gravedona. A week later, he was dead. He was 84 years old. Acerboni's nephew Fabio Landrini reports how difficult it was for him to lose his uncle, especially because the family didn't really have a chance to say goodbye to him.
For me, coronavirus is the illness of solitude. As long as my uncle was still at home, we brought him food everyday as he lay sick in bed. We saw him one final time before he was taken to hospital, but after that, we never saw him again. He died alone. What hurts me most is that we weren't allowed to see him after he died. That we weren't even allowed to say goodbye to my uncle. He was cremated. Without burial. All he got was last rites.
That kind of thing is difficult to accept for family members. I understand that doctors don't have any time for the fates of each individual; they are working day and night. But for the families, it is horrible that they cannot say goodbye to their loved ones, or cannot see them one final time. We don't even know on what day my uncle was cremated. It was probably on Wednesday, but in this situation, families are unable to get precise information.
"As many bodies in one week as in a normal year"
Vittorio Natangeli is a funeral home director in Rome. He is monitoring with concern what his colleagues in northern Italy are going through. But his daily life has also changed dramatically.
Funerals of the kind we used to celebrate are forbidden. Open caskets, church services and then ceremonies at the cemetery: For the last three weeks, none of that has been possible anymore. The authorities have given us precise rules to follow before we are able to bring the deceased to the cemetery.
Now, we drive the hearse directly to the morgue, and then we take the casket directly to the grave with no ceremony, with just one or two relatives at most. Once we have lowered the casket into the grave, we immediately leave. Cemeteries across all of Italy have been closed, with families not allowed to visit their family graves even after burial.
In contrast to northern Italy, relatively few people have died of coronavirus in Rome. Thus far, we have picked up two deceased COVID-19 patients from hospitals. They handed over the bodies to us in a shroud or in a container of biodegradable material. One or two family members said a prayer at the hospital, and then we drove off. Those thought to have died of COVID-19 in Rome have to be brought to the coroner to determine the precise cause of death. Once the body has been released by the coroner, it goes straight to the cemetery.
More on Coronavirus
Our colleagues from the north have begun calling us to ask if we can help them out with hearses and drivers. They are, of course, having a much tougher time of it than we are. In some places, they have had as many bodies in one week as in a normal year.
"He died alone, and he will be buried alone"
Fabio Fancoli died a few days ago of coronavirus at the age of 62. He lived in the town of Sondrio in the province of Lombardy and worked for his entire career at the agricultural association Coldiretti. Domenico Incondi recalls his last telephone conversation with his co-worker and friend.
We worked together at Coldiretti for 35 years, and we of course grew close over the years. We shared so many days and so many experiences. Fabio was a good person. He taught me a lot. We often went skiing together or played tennis.
I spoke with Fabio on the phone one last time before he was hospitalized. I didn't hear from him again after that. That's unfortunately how it is with the coronavirus: As soon as an infected person is taken to the hospital, you can't visit them anymore. Not even when they die. That is the reality in Italy at the moment, and it is terrible for everyone. Fabio died in the hospital in Sondalo. He was there for 10 days, completely alone. There won't be a funeral for him either. He'll be buried on Saturday. He died alone, and he will be buried alone."