ROME—In the back corner of Milan’s Maggiore cemetery is Campo 87, a field of hastily dug graves where 128 victims of COVID-19 were laid to rest in plots marked only with cheap plastic crosses. Those buried there were unclaimed at hospital morgues much like the scores of nameless COVID-19 victims buried in the potter’s field of New York’s Hart Island. But many of those who ended up in Milan’s Campo 87 were not interred there because they were homeless or had no families. In most cases, their family members were also COVID-19 positive and sick themselves, or under strict quarantine and unable to collect the bodies.
Now that the worst of the pandemic has subsided—at least for the moment—those same family members want to give their dead a proper funeral and transfer them to family tombs where they can pay their respects. But an archaic Italian law that dates back to past plagues prohibits anyone who dies from an infectious disease from being exhumed within two years of the burial, meaning the families have to wait even longer for the closure they need.
Because of the contagiousness of the coronavirus, none of those who died from it were embalmed or processed in accordance with normal burial practices. “It was more like a war situation where people were buried in mass graves,” a spokesman for the Maggiore cemetery told The Daily Beast. “At the time it was the only solution to avoid having bodies stacked up.”
Under normal circumstances, families in Italy have 30 days to claim the bodies of people who die in hospitals. After that they are catalogued and buried in communal sections in public cemeteries. Many of these grave sites across Italy are traditionally filled with unnamed migrants who died while trying to cross the Mediterranean Sea or in refugee camps. Homeless people and foreigners without family are also among the dead. It is rare that Italians with families end up in these graves.
But at the height of the crisis, Beppe Sala, the mayor of Lombardy’s capital city Milan, shortened the 30-day mandatory holding period to just five days to deal with the huge number of deaths that had overwhelmed the system. Of Italy’s 34,167 COVID-related fatalities, 16,374 were in Lombardy, which remains the epicenter of Italy’s coronavirus crisis. Many of the coffins were carried away for burial in big military vehicles since funerals were prohibited across the country until May 18.
Families who found out their loved ones had been buried in communal sections of cemeteries were told at the time that they could eventually claim their dead. They say they weren’t told it would take at least two years.
Several lawyers are now working with groups of family members to try to reclaim the dead before the two-year waiting period.
“During the emergency it was very intense and chaotic, and certainly errors would have been made,” Walter Marini, a lawyer representing the family of 90-year-old Vittorio Domenicon who died in mid-March at the peak of the crisis when the daily death count topped 969, told the Guardian earlier this week. “But now that the situation has improved, families should be able to reclaim the bodies and give their loved ones a proper funeral.”
Now the problem is on the shoulders of Roberta Cocco, Milan’s civic services councilwoman, who told The Daily Beast that she is working round the clock to determine just who is buried in Campo 87 and providing support to those families.
Among them are prominent community leaders like Gianni Fossati, a well-known businessman from Bergamo whose wife was in intensive care with COVID when he died. Fossati’s brother Vando, who was on mandatory quarantine after having been in contact with his brother before he was hospitalized, learned of the death through friends who worked at the hospital. But by the time he finished his own two-week quarantine and tried to collect the body, it was gone. For weeks he and Fossati’s wife searched morgue records to try to find her husband. They finally found him in Plot 23 of Campo 87 after a nurse who treated him suggested they look there. Neither Fossati’s wife or brother had been informed officially about his death.
But like so many other family members whose loved ones were hastily buried, it appears that they, too, may have to wait at least two years to move him to the family mausoleum.
“There is nothing I can do about the two-year law,” Cocco says. “This is truly a tragedy within a tragedy.”