(Reuters) – Struck down by coronavirus at the age of 83, the long life of Alfredo Visioli ended with a short ceremony at a graveyard near Cremona, his hometown in northern Italy.
“They buried him like that, without a funeral, without his loved ones, with just a blessing from the priest,” said his granddaughter Marta Manfredi who couldn’t attend. Like most of the old man’s family – like most of Italy – she was confined to her home.
“When all this is over,” she vows, “we will give him a real funeral.”
Everywhere the coronavirus has struck, regardless of culture or religion, ancient rituals to honor the dead and comfort the bereaved have been cut short or abandoned for fear of spreading it further.
The virus, which has killed nearly 9,000 people worldwide, is reshaping many aspects of death, from the practicalities of handling infected bodies to meeting the spiritual and emotional needs of those left behind.
In Ireland, the health authority is advising mortuary workers to put face masks on dead bodies to reduce even the minor risk of infection. In Italy, a funeral company is using video links to allow quarantined families to watch a priest bless the deceased. And in South Korea, fear of the virus has caused such a drop in the number of mourners that funeral caterers are struggling for business.
There is little time for ceremony in hard-hit cities such as Bergamo, northeast of Milan, where the mortuaries are full and the crematorium is working around the clock, said Giacomo Angeloni, a local official in charge of cemeteries.
Bergamo, home to about 120,000 people, has been dealing with 5-6 times the number of dead it would in normal times, he said.
Italy has now reported nearly 3,000 deaths from COVID-19, the disease caused by the coronavirus – the highest outside China where the virus first emerged. The Italian army sent 50 troops and 15 trucks to Bergamo on Wednesday to take bodies to less overwhelmed provinces.
A ban on gatherings has shattered the vital rituals that help us grieve, said Andy Langford, the chief operating officer of Cruse Bereavement Care, a British charity providing free care and counseling to those in grief.
“Funerals allow a community to come together, express emotion, talk about that person and formally say goodbye,” he said.
“When you feel you have no control over how you can grieve, and over how you can experience those last moments with someone, that can complicate how you grieve and make you feel worse,” he said.
In Iran as in northern Italy, hospital and funeral workers are overwhelmed with bodies, as the virus has torn across the country, killing 1,284 people and infecting thousands, according to state TV.
The authorities have hired new people to dig graves, said a manager at Tehran’s Behesht-e Zahra cemetery. “We work day and night,” he said. “I have never seen such a sad situation. There are no funerals.”
Most corpses arrive by truck and are buried without the ritual washing that Islam dictates, he said.
Some Iranians suspect that the official haste to bury them has more to do with obscuring the spiraling death toll than halting the spread of the virus.
Deaths from COVID-19 have been recorded as heart attacks or lung infections, a hospital worker in Kashan, a city about a three-hour drive from Tehran, told Reuters.
“The officials are lying about the death toll,” the worker said. “I have seen dozens of corpses in the past few days, but they have told us not to talk about it.” Two nurses at Iranian hospitals also told Reuters they thought the death toll was higher than the official tally.
Iranian authorities have rejected allegations of a cover-up, and President Hassan Rouhani, in a televised speech on Mar. 18, said his government had been “honest and straightforward with the nation.”
In several countries, clusters of infection have followed funerals. In South Korea, where more than 90 people have died, the government has urged the families of COVID-19 victims to cremate their loved ones first, and hold the funeral later.
Korean funerals usually take place in hospitals, and involve three days of prayers and feasting. Most of the country’s early cases were linked to a church in Daegu city and a hospital in a nearby county. In February, several members of the Shincheonji Church of Jesus attended a funeral at the hospital for the brother of the church’s founder.
Since the outbreak, the number of mourners at funerals has plunged by 90%, regardless of whether the deceased had the virus, said Choi Min-ho, secretary general of the Korea Funeral Association.
“The culture of funerals has changed significantly,” he said. “A handful of mourners quickly offer condolences and leave the place without dining together out of infection worries.”
Condolence money, traditionally handed over in cash, is now sent via bank transfer, he added.
Authorities in Wuhan, the epicenter of China’s outbreak and location of the majority of its deaths, quickly identified the funeral business as a potential source of transmission.
The local civil affairs bureau in late January ordered all funerals for confirmed COVID-19 victims to be handled at a single funeral home in the city’s Hankou district. Mourning ceremonies, usually boisterous social events in China, were curtailed along with all other public gatherings.
Those restrictions are still in place, even though the number of new cases has dwindled in recent weeks. Bereaved families are not even allowed to see the bodies of their loved ones, a worker at the funeral home told Reuters.
In China, the ashes of the deceased tend to be kept in funeral homes until they are taken to a family plot on public holidays such as the Tomb Sweeping Festival in April. That’s also canceled this year.
In Spain, too, a large cluster of cases has been traced to a funeral in the northern town of Vitoria in late February. At least 60 people who attended tested positive after the event, said local media reports.
With over 600 deaths, Spain is the second-worst hit country in Europe after Italy, and most people are now confined to their homes. Referring to these restrictions, Prime Minister Pedro Sanchez has called coronavirus a “cruel” disease that paralyses the human need to socialize.