Outside of China, Italy is the country worst hit by the coronavirus outbreak to date. As of mid-March, the country had 27,000 confirmed cases and 2,158 COVID-19 related deaths. Fewer than 3,000 people are reported to have recovered. In an attempt to contain the virus and its deadly spread, the Italian government has imposed strict lockdown orders. Per the new and temporary mandate, residents can only leave their homes for medical care and essential items, such as food and toiletries. Residents cannot leave their homes to visit loved ones or attend their funerals.
Funerals Disallowed and Cemeteries Closed
Per the new lockdown orders, funerals are not allowed. Instead, deceased individuals will be sent to the afterlife by a priest and funeral home director. In very rare instances, the government will allow a funeral gathering of no more than 10 mourners.
To dissuade people from leaving their homes, the Italian government has also ordered the closing of cemeteries. The string of precautions — which grow stricter with each passing day — means families have no opportunity to visit their loved ones to say goodbye. It also means families are robbed of the opportunity to mourn properly, or to give a deceased loved one the end-of-life ceremony every person deserves.
Morgues Are Overwhelmed
In Italy, which has the oldest population in all of Europe, the death toll has been heavy. With over 2,000 deaths, Italy has seen the most COVID-19-related deaths outside of China. On Monday, March 16, the number of new deaths surpassed 300.
Hospital morgues and funeral homes cannot keep up. Despite working 24-hour days, morgues are seeing bodies pile up at an unprecedented rate. A priest at a church in the northern region of Lombardy — the epicenter of the country’s outbreak — explains that they simply don’t know where to put the bodies. With hundreds dying each day, and with each body taking more than one hour to cremate, there is an alarming backlog. Outside the cemetery, wooden coffins form a macabre line, waiting for cremation.
Absence of Funerals Is Hard on Believers
Believers are having a particularly hard time accepting the fact that their loved ones are dying alone and being sent to the afterlife without a proper ceremony. Sick individuals are spirited away and, because of the fear of contagion, often spend the remainder of their days in isolation. They die without the comfort that comes from friends and family.
One resident explains how it is. “It’s a trauma, an emotional trauma,” he says. These people — friends, family members, neighbors, coworkers — not only must die alone, but also they must be buried alone. They didn’t get the most basic privilege of holding a loved one’s hand as they took their last breaths. They didn’t receive a brief prayer from a priest. They died knowing that many of their loved ones were also in quarantine, and not knowing what had become of them or what would become of them.
In some parts of Italy, families have it even worse. One man, nearing 50, had his 79-year-old father die in the midst of the outbreak. Medical experts couldn’t be certain COVID-19 was the cause of the old man’s death. Yet he was another casualty of the virus, as the funeral home had no space for his body. Instead, the home sent the coffin to the son’s house, along with a cross, some candles and a mortuary refrigerator. No one came to pay respect for the man’s life, out of fear of contagion.
Sadly, for many communities throughout Italy, the coronavirus has hurled them seemingly back in time. It’s a scary time in Italy and throughout the world, and a time when it is more important than ever to have faith.