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"No chance to see their loved ones again": Funerals in Italy have been banned, and many are being buried alone

State of the coronavirus outbreak in Europe
State of the coronavirus outbreak in Europe 01:26

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. 

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A man wearing a face mask stands by the coffin of his mother as a priest reads prayers during a funeral service near Bergamo, Italy.  PIERO CRUCIATTI/GETTY IMAGES

So far Italy has had more than 80,000 confirmed cases of coronavirus and over 8,000 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. 

"There is immense pain," Giulio Dellavite, general secretary of the Bergamo Diocese, told CBS News. "Hospitals are absolutely full. There is no space for sick patients, so they stay in the hallways with their oxygen masks. Due to the contagiousness level of the virus, family members are not allowed to visit the hospitals."

And the isolation orders continue even after a patient dies. While funeral gatherings are not permitted, officials have allowed priests to say a prayer at burials. But only close family members can attend.

"When a patient tests positive, family members must stay isolated for 15 days due to the risk of contagiousness. If during those two weeks the patient dies, those isolated family members cannot participate in the burial," Dellavite said. "This means that for many, there is no chance to see their loved ones again. And this means that many are being buried alone."

Dellavite proceeded to share a personal account. 

"A priest friend of mine called me. His father passed away from the virus. He's currently self-isolating, so is his mom and so are his siblings. There will be no funeral. His father will be taken straight to the cemetery and buried without anyone being able to participate in this essential moment of humanity and Christian piety."

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. 

"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." 

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.

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A priest wearing a face mask checks a book of funeral rites as he gives the last blessing to a deceased person. PIERO CRUCIATTI/GETTY IMAGES

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.

"We are taking caskets in as a gesture of tenderness toward those who died alone. It's a sign of respect, to show that we care," Dellavite said. 

Italy's death toll from the virus hit a single-day peak of 793 on March 21. 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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