Livestreamed funerals and crematoria working 24 hours a day: How coronavirus changed Italy’s death practices

‘Customs that were once routine are now memories,’ councillor in Lombardy says

Zoe Tidman
Thursday 30 April 2020 17:40
A priest reads prayers from the book of funeral rites in a northern Italian cemetery in the absence of relatives
A priest reads prayers from the book of funeral rites in a northern Italian cemetery in the absence of relatives

The Covid-19 crisis has dictated how people go about their daily lives in Italy for nearly two months, not least the way they grieve for lives lost in the pandemic.

With cemeteries closed and funerals banned – both are considered potential breeding grounds for spreading the virus – the families of Italy’s 27,600 coronavirus victims and those who have died from other causes have had to find new ways to mourn.

At the same time, funeral service providers have been working round the clock to deal with the huge toll, and some northern areas have been forced to ask other regions to help out take on some of the dead.

“In my four years of being a councillor, I have never seen so many deaths all together,” Simone Rosa, who oversees cemeteries for the council of Cologno Monzese in the Milan area, told The Independent.

“If you asked me to describe hell, I believe this would be the most realistic of all the descriptions,” he said.

To prevent the death toll from rising higher, the central government and individual districts have imposed strict measures during the lockdown.

Mr Rosa said that since the virus arrived in Italy, “we have had to change how we go about our daily life and, unfortunately, the more religious aspects of our lives”.

“Customs that were once almost a routine – such as mass on Sunday, funeral processions and rosaries in the house of the deceased – are now memories.”

Mr Rosa said his town was one of the first to close cemeteries, fearing that people – perhaps those who had close contact with loved ones killed by the virus – might stop and chat to others similarly experiencing grief.

But elsewhere in the badly hit Lombardy region, the city of Monza kept its two cemeteries open right up until the national government ordered them to shut across the whole country in early April.

“This is different to the overwhelming majority of comuni (Italian municipal districts) who decided to close their cemeteries off to the public several weeks before,” Simone Villa, the deputy mayor, said.

The city just north of Milan managed to keep them open for so long by constantly monitoring the grounds to check mourners were following distancing rules, he said.

The entire country has been ordered to stay at home unless it is essential – for example, to get groceries or go to work – and all public gatherings banned since mid-March as part of efforts to tackle the outbreak.

Funerals have also been off-limits for more than a month, with a town near Naples being put into strict quarantine after a crowd turned out for the mayor’s funeral procession.

Even though national rules banned public services, small burials have still been allowed to take place for close family members.

In Cologno Monzese, Mr Rosa said a priest can perform a service – saying prayers and blessing the body – with a maximum of 20 relatives in the cemetery, as long as everyone leaves the area as soon as it is over.

A priest reads the book of funeral rites and common prayers during a funeral service for a victim of Covid-19 at a cemetery in Piedmont in April (Marco Bertorello/AFP via Getty)

In the northern city of Bergamo – one of the worst-hit places in the country by – up to 10 family members can go to the burial, a spokesperson for the mayor told The Independent.

And for those who cannot physically travel to attend a service, many funeral directors have used innovative ways to ensure they can still say their goodbyes.

These include streaming services, with providers like Onoranze funerbi Calosso in the northern Piedmont region who post a Zoom link on their website for people to click and follow the scaled-back funeral live.

Even within the size limits for services, close family members cannot attend if they have been in contact with the virus and forced to stay in quarantine.

This happens “very often” when a person has died from Covid-19, the president of the association that looks after Bologna’s cemeteries said.

“In Italy, as in other countries, the moment of paying respects to a loved one is a time to collectivise the pain,” Simone Spataro said. “We believe the loss of this moment is and will be a wound to our community.”

He said authorities have been doing their best to help people manage the changes, including placing flowers throughout the cemetery in the northern Italian city over Easter as people were barred from entering.

In Bergamo, Francesco Alleva, a spokesperson for the mayor, told The Independent workers have made sure tombs stay clean, throwing away rotten and old flowers and watering plants “to ensure as much dignity as possible” is maintained during the pandemic.

An Italian army officer runs past a military vehicle parked in the Monumental Cemetery in Bergamo during the coronavirus crisis (Emanuele Cremaschi/Getty)

The small city in Lombardy has had at least 11,300 cases in its province, as of the final week of April, and images of the overflowing obituary pages in its newspapers have been shared around the world.

The Bergamo crematorium has likewise struggled to cater for demand during the crisis. Military vehicles have been used to take bodies elsewhere for cremation, and the ashes then returned to the city.

At least 475 bodies have been cremated outside Bergamo since the start of the coronavirus outbreak, the mayor’s spokesperson said. Florence, Venice, Verona and Vicenza have all helped take on the load.

Bernado Rossi from the crematorium in Florence told The Independent the city has also welcomed bodies from Milan and Cremona in a bid to help saturated crematoria in badly-hit northern areas.

His crematorium has been working 24 hours a day and seven days a week since the end of March, the board member said.

He said the ban on public funerals could have increased demand for cremations, as people can keep the ashes and do a proper funeral once they are allowed out again.

Mr Spataro from Bologna Servizi Cimiteriali said his city has also helped areas further north deal with the crisis by taking on cremations.

“North Italy has been badly hit by the epidemic and the cemeteries and funerals services of those zones were not prepared to deal with this pandemic,” he said.

“An emergency broke out when the crematoria from those zones were no longer able to deal with the rising daily death rates.”

Coffins arrive in Florence from northern Italy for cremation (Bernado Rossi )

Last weekend, the government said it would start gradually relaxing some of its lockdown measures from next week, including allowing funerals with less than 15 guests from 4 May.

By that time, funeral rites will have been upended for nearly two months.

“You ask me how Pescara has adapted?” Mariarita Paoni Saccone, who oversees cemeteries on the coastal city’s council, said. “I answer in the first person, as a simple citizen, as a daughter who lost her own mother not long ago and managed to say a final farewell and managed to ensure she received the funeral she deserved.

“How can we adapt to a situation like this? How can you accept losing a loved one, without being able to be by their side until their last breath and then without being able to have a funeral? Honestly, I don’t think you can accept it, even if you must.”

She added: “I hope with all my heart we can go back to saying goodbye to our loved ones the way they deserve as soon as possible.”

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