ROME—On May 4, when Italy starts to loosen harsh pandemic lockdown restrictions in place since early March, people finally will be able to go outside to exercise and visit family members they haven’t seen for weeks. Parks will be open and restaurants and coffee bars can finally start serving takeout. People can begin going back to work and life will start to feel like whatever the new normal becomes. But despite the happiness of restored liberties, Italians will also have to start the grim task of burying their many, many dead.
Nearly 27,000 people have died from COVID-19-related causes in Italy since the outbreak began in this country of 60 million on February 23. Many others died undiagnosed or of other causes, including cancer, car accidents and heart attacks. Some of the COVID-19 victims were cremated hastily, their ashes waiting to be picked up by family members who finally will be allowed to collect them. Some bodies were buried, but many others are still in cold storage, kept in morgues, private funeral parlors and large refrigerated trucks awaiting burial in family tombs and mausoleums.
The reopening of this country that was hit so hard so early on was never going to be easy, and the backlog of the dead who need to be mourned, memorialized and buried has always been a dark cloud over any progress Italy can celebrate in recovering.
In this predominantly Catholic country, funerals are an especially important rite of passage. And even though a Catholic funeral requires a body, a memorial mass does not. The survivors of those who died and were cremated in the pandemic will take whatever closure they can get and want a service, albeit with a maximum of just 15 mourners—and preferably outside—under the new guidelines.
The new decree still prohibits all public gatherings, including Catholic services like Sunday mass, weddings and baptisms as well prayer services in mosques and synagogues. In some special cases yet to be defined, permissions may be granted, but only under tight restrictions.
The Italian Bishops Conference responded angrily to the new guidelines, saying they arbitrarily exclude “the possibility of celebrating mass with the people.” They believe that limiting Catholic gatherings to funeral services without the possibility to hold other events will cause undue stress on the faithful.
Until now, families whose loved ones died at home or in elder care centers could sometimes coax the local parish priest into coming out into the churchyard or an alleyway to bless the casket in the back of the hearse on its way to be stored until burial could be allowed. But most people who lost loved ones have been forced to wait for restrictions to lift.
Even before Prime Minister Giuseppe Conte unveiled the May 4 launch of Phase II on Sunday night, mourners had already filled up waiting lists at their local parishes for funeral services that will soon be held in succession in churches across the country.
One can envision mourners lined up around the block waiting their turn in the hardest hit areas—all against the mournful backdrop of church bells tolling all day long. In Lombardy alone, more than 13,000 people have died of COVID-19-related causes in just two months, and not one family or community has been allowed to have a funeral. Doctors, nurses and other frontline workers who gave their lives on the front line of this crisis will all deserve special recognition in death.
Nearly 90 percent of Italians list their religion as Catholic, but other religious entities are also now planning their own farewells. The pandemic has not discriminated on the basis of religion, but demographics suggest that Catholics are the hardest hit.
Many Jewish and Muslim victims of COVID-19 have been buried across the country, in accordance with religious requirements to bury the dead within 24 hours, but traditional washing of the bodies was banned and no services could be held. Alfonso Arbib, a rabbi in Milan, told an Italian television station that washing the bodies “is just not safe” and that “preserving life is the most important thing right now.”
The reopening of Italy will come in three distinct phases—all under strict guidelines. On May 4, small personal liberties will be granted like being able to move beyond 300 meters (980 feet) from private homes to exercise or shop. Construction companies, those who sell building supplies, and fashion production centers will join the ranks of manufacturers and agricultural entities that already have been allowed to get back to work. Temperatures will be taken at public transportation hubs and everyone will be required to wear face coverings including surgical masks, which are now exempt from sales tax and price gouging.
On May 18—barring a catastrophe like a second wave of infections—more amenities, including museums, libraries and even retail stores selling clothing and home decor items are scheduled to open, in many cases by appointment or with strict guidelines like sterilizing clothing that has been tried on or sanitizing establishments several times a day.
Then on June 1, if the number of COVID-19 cases is still manageable for the health-care system, restaurants, bars, hair salons and private health-care practitioners from pediatricians to dentists will cautiously join the fray. Beaches and tourist entities could eventually follow if the pandemic remains under control in a way that does not tax the healthcare system. The staggered reopening of Italy is a stark contrast to what is happening in some American states like Georgia, where spas, massage parlors, hairdressers, bars and the like have been among the first businesses to reopen.
There has been no mention here of when travel between regions or even outside the country could become a reality, and venues like concert halls, movie theaters and schools will not open until the fall at the earliest.
When Conte laid out his government’s plans for Phase II, he cautioned that any rush or unnecessary shortcuts could restart the nightmare and lead to even more deaths before the first round of fatalities have been laid to rest.
“If we do not respect social distance, the curve will go up and out of control,” he warned in a televised address. “Our deaths will increase and we will suffer irreversible damage to our economy, so if you love Italy keep your distance.”
In a country that has suffered so deeply, the threat of having to relive the horrific tragedy may well keep everyone at arm’s length.