(CBS News) — An emergency national law in Italy has banned civil and religious ceremonies, including funerals, amid the coronavirus pandemic — an unprecedented move for an overwhelmingly Catholic country. It is one of the many restrictions against gatherings that have been put in place to try to stop the spread of the disease in Europe’s epicenter.
While funeral gatherings are not permitted, officials have allowed priests to say a prayer at burials. But very few of the bereaved can attend.
So far Italy has had more than 74,000 confirmed cases of coronavirus and over 7,500 deaths — the highest death toll of any country in the world.
Many coronavirus victims in Italy and elsewhere are forced to spend their final days alone in hospital isolation. Because of the high risk, family members and close friends are not allowed to approach them — either to avoid being infected, or because they themselves are already under quarantine for having been in contact with the person. And the isolation orders continue even after a patient dies.
“There is a lot of fear,” said Ciano Gatti, an undertaker in Lombardy, the most affected region in Italy. “We have been introduced a directive to immediately close the coffin when someone dies.”
With these news measures, families no longer have the option to make their loved ones look peaceful by brushing their hair, applying makeup or dressing them in a favorite outfit before burial. Even placing a note inside the coffin is rarely authorized.
Like many of those battling the epidemic on the front lines, undertakers worry about exposure to the virus on a daily basis. “We are becoming paranoid,” Gatti said. “Especially when we enter people’s homes or hospitals to retrieve the bodies.”
Despite wearing full protective gear on the job, many undertakers have gotten infected, causing staff shortages at a time when their services are in very high demand.
“Many funeral homes have their entire staff under quarantine. My company’s manager died. Unfortunately, no one is immune to the virus. Not even those working these essential jobs,” said Gatti.
In Bergamo, a northern town with the highest number of cases in Italy, caskets have been piling up in churches because the local cemeteries are full. The military was brought in to move about 70 coffins to less overwhelmed provinces for burial, Reuters reported.
Italy’s death toll from the virus hit a single-day peak of 793 on March 21. However, the country’s Civil Protection Agency noted that the rate of new cases of contagion has now fallen for the fourth day running.
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