Italy is Struggling to Deal with the Bodies of Coronavirus Victims

We asked an expert about the strain on the funeral industry and being forced to call in the army to transport coffins.
25 March 2020, 1:00pm
coronavirus italy deaths
Photo: Getty Images/Blend Images

This article originally appeared on VICE Italy.

When I first saw the viral videos of military trucks picking up the coffins of coronavirus fatalities in Bergamo, northern Italy, I’ll admit I thought they were fake. Unfortunately, they weren't. On the 21st of March, the Italian army was called in to transport some 60 dead bodies outside of the city, since its crematorium couldn’t dispose of more than 25 bodies per day, despite working around the clock.

Bergamo is so far the area hardest-hit by the Italian outbreak; since the beginning of the crisis, over 1,000 have died of COVID-19 in the city and surroundings alone. The coffins in the military trucks were taken to Ferrara, 200 kilometres south-west of Bergamo, and other cities to relieve pressure on the system.

These pictures and videos shone a light not only on the region’s medical emergency, but also on the strain put on funeral homes and undertakers. I spoke to the head of Italy's National Federation of Funeral Honour Enterprises (FENIOF), Alessandro Bosi, to understand the restrictions and risks undertakers are dealing with in the country.

VICE: How have undertakers' jobs changed since the crisis?
Alessandro Bosi: It's particularly difficult for funeral homes at the moment, because they have to respect special security procedures to take care of the victims of COVID-19, plus of course handle the regular deaths happening in the country (around 600,000 per year). With the new restrictions, they can’t offer the whole array of services and support for grieving families.

What’s the current protocol?
The rules vary from region to region. Generally, when a funeral home receives the body of someone who has died from COVID-19, they have to leave their clothes on and wrap them in a sheet covered in disinfectant. Then, the bodies are put back in the coffin which is immediately sealed before being transported to the cemetery or the crematorium.

When someone dies from COVID-19 in the hospital, often their relatives can’t even see them again. They have to say their goodbyes in front of a sealed-off coffin. When someone dies at home and their cause of death is linked with the disease posthumously, everyone living with them or who has been in contact with them is quarantined. That’s a problem for funeral homes – they have to find a way to coordinate with the relatives to organise a funeral without them. They have to take the maximum precautions.

Do you think funeral home employees are protected adequately?
We raised this problem weeks ago; FFP3 masks and disinfectants are impossible to find. Our sector is certainly secondary to the work of healthcare personnel, but since we’re in charge of the funeral services we need to protect our operators and guarantee their work, for the benefit of the whole population.

How does a funeral for a COVID-19 victim work?
At the moment, funerals consist of transporting the coffins to the burial site and not much more. All celebrations and gatherings of any type are banned. The new regulations also forbid open-casket transfers. I’ve seen some false information going around that if you die of COVID-19 you have to be cremated. That’s not true. The bodies can be buried or cremated, like everyone else.

If the family can’t move or celebrate a regular funeral, how do you coordinate with them?
There have been many changes. Especially when someone dies at home, you can’t take anything for granted when it comes to establishing their cause of death. You have to wear face masks, hazmat suits and gloves also when you interact with their relatives. Some towns have lifted restrictions on procedures that normally have to be handled in person. For example, the authorisation to cremate can be given through a video call on WhatsApp and other matters can be handled by email.

How does this impact the mourning process?
I have to say that Italian families are reacting very responsibly and collaboratively. Many have made arrangements with local funeral homes and priests to symbolically celebrate their loved ones once the emergency is over.

Do those images of army trucks transporting corpses reflect the gravity of what you're dealing with?
Those pictures show how problematic a sudden surge in COVID-19 deaths in a small area can be. The problem with Bergamo is that currently, many funeral homes have also been locked down. The city even had to temporarily place coffins in a church because there was no space in the cemetery nor in the crematorium. These solutions are normally unthinkable.

Most coffins can't lie around for a long time; they have a container inside that holds any liquids expelled by the corpses, but within a few days the containers can overflow, creating obvious hygiene problems. I think the images of the army were effective in making people stay home and respect the emergency laws. They made everyone realise it wasn’t a joke.