In the wee hours of March 19, a line of 30 military vehicles transported several dozen coffins out of the city of Bergamo, in northern Italy, as the local crematories could not keep up with the pace of people dying from COVID-19. Watching the footage of the heartbreaking procession through the eerily empty highways made me want to cover my ears and scream when my neighbors started singing from their balconies.
It wasn’t just the deaths that bothered me. They are a reality that I, like all other Italians, have been forced to reckon with at least once a day, at 6 p.m., when the authorities update the death toll and the number of the newly infected.
It was the profound sense of loneliness that really affected me — the lack of funerals and communal rituals to commemorate the departed. Many victims of the coronavirus have died without family members being able to say goodbye or to be present when coffins are buried.
In Italy, where the death toll has climbed to 6,820 — making it the country with the most victims — both civil and religious funerals have been banned for weeks, and many graveyards are closed to prevent grieving families from visiting the tombs of loved ones. Upon request, one priest is allowed to give a blessing to the coffin before the burial. Very few mourners are allowed to be present.
Recently, a newspaper in Bergamo drew worldwide attention because a single issue had 10 full pages of obituaries. When I saw that, I seriously doubted how reasonable it is to keep telling each other “everything is going to be fine,” as we’ve been doing since the country’s lockdown began on March 9.
For more than two weeks, the number of dead climbed daily. Almost each day was a new record, until we reached a high of 793 deaths in one day. But the country may have finally turned a corner. As of March 24, we’ve had three consecutive days of decreasing numbers of newly infected. We should feel good — perhaps our lockdown and extreme measures of keeping people apart over the last two and a half weeks has worked. Maybe we’re getting closer to a time when life can go back to normal, although epidemiologists warn that when you begin to flatten the curve, that’s when social distancing needs to be enforced even more tightly. We can’t forget that complacency kills.
But I can’t stop thinking about what we lost during those weeks. Thousands of people died alone. And many more family members will forever feel a void. People have died without dignity. Without ceremony. Families have been left without an outlet for mourning.
It’s something that I have worried about: What might happen to my own family if someone should fall ill? A friend confided to me that his greatest fear is that his mother, who lives alone, may get infected and die without him being able to see her for the last time. I was moved when I heard about an 84-year-old priest in a hospital who held his phone next to dying patients to allow their family members to say goodbye.
Many of the obituaries published in the Bergamo newspaper did not include details regarding burials, as hospital morgues have been overwhelmed with corpses. Coffins are also temporarily stacked inside the cemetery church.
Corpses cannot even be dressed. They have to be wrapped in a special sanitizing mat and immediately transferred into the caskets, a precaution that is necessary but also dehumanizing. Funeral home workers share pictures and videos of the dead with their families. The most tech-savvy companies are gearing up to broadcast the obsequies. Like almost anything else in the age of the coronavirus, even final farewells will be livestreamed.
There are very obvious sanitary reasons to limit gatherings in which hugs, kisses, and tears abound, and where a high concentration of elderly people is to be expected. In the United States, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has asked funeral homes to livestream funerals and to limit gatherings to 50 people, while some states, including Massachusetts, have imposed even stricter regulations. But the absence of proper burials may also have an immaterial price, placing an emotional burden on people who won’t be able to properly express their grief.
The absence of ritual burial breaks something that is deeply ingrained in the human spirit. “By severely limiting funerals, we are privileging physical health above everything else, and that will come at a cost,” Dr. William G. Hoy, a professor of medical humanities at Baylor University, told me on a Zoom conference from his office. Hoy “spends a lot of time thinking about death,” as the opening line of his official bio states, and he is concerned about authorities not taking the absence of burials seriously enough.
“To stand on the edge of the abyss and attempt to get some meaning out of it is a fundamental human need. We want to walk through what we cannot talk through,” Hoy said. Commemorative events that might be held when the epidemic is over are not going to solve the “complicated grief” that the absence of funerals tends to generate, he says. In several cultures, people would be willing to risk their own physical health rather than leaving a loved one without a proper funeral. The public dimension of the ceremony is crucial.
“Every living creature on earth dies alone,” goes a memorable line in the 2001 movie “Donnie Darko,” capturing an inescapable truth about the final departure. Death is a door so narrow that only one individual can pass through it at once. Yet death should be the opposite of loneliness. Burial rituals are communal celebrations meant to bring together the bereaved community. The Irish wake vividly encapsulates that.
A lonely death is a dreaded occurrence. In Japanese culture, the term kodokushi describes people dying alone, generally in their own homes, without anyone realizing it for days or weeks.
During the 1918 influenza pandemic, several cities in the United States, including Chicago and Philadelphia, suspended funerals and burial ceremonies to contain the contagion, while gravediggers and carpenters struggled to keep up with the number of people dying. That compounded the pain that families felt, says historian Nancy K. Bristow, a professor at the University of Puget Sound who wrote an account of that tragic outbreak.
“The restrictions on public events meant that families and communities had those rites interrupted, so grieving didn’t take place in public but became an individual process, which had long-term consequences,” she said in an interview with history.com. “Without an opportunity to share it with those around them, that grief was carried around for decades.”
Because the infection trends in the United States continue to follow Italy’s, it’s possible that you’ll see as many deaths as we have, unless the patchwork of social distancing measures and shelter-in-place restrictions are successful. If the deaths keep rising, I hope you can properly honor the dead, mitigating the profound loneliness that the pandemic has wrought.
Mattia Ferraresi is a writer for the Italian newspaper Il Foglio and author of the Ideas essay “A coronavirus cautionary tale from Italy: Don’t do what we did.”