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When saying a final goodbye is banned

April 9, 2020

Death in the time of coronavirus is lonely, and silent. Italy's ban on saying goodbye to dying family members or friends has plunged many into despair — but they continue to hope for new, more humane regulations.

Coffins wait to be transported to cemetery, in the church of Serina
Image: picture-alliance/AP/C. Furlan

There's an outcry. But it's silent. Silent as death and as quiet as the grief of loved ones.  "I know many people who were unable to say goodbye to their deceased mother or father," Bergamo Bishop Francesco Beschi laments in a recent interview with the German weekly Zeit's ‘Christ and the World' supplement.

Bergamo, some 600 kilometers (372 miles) north of Rome, is the epicenter of the COVID-19 outbreak in northern Italy.

Read more: Mourning in coronavirus pandemic times

At the end of March, Beschi said an intercessory prayer at the Bergamo cemetery for the more than 1,800 people who had died in the city and their relatives who were unable to say their final goodbyes. "We must not leave them alone with their pain, those who have seen their loved ones disappear into nothingness," the bishop warned.

Cell phones on coffins 

And yet this is exactly what is happening. Mourning in coronavirus times means something unimaginable for the relatives and the dying — they are not allowed to say their final farewell. These regulations exist in many hospitals, elderly care homes and nursing homes. Their last breath is recorded by a machine and nobody is there to hold their hand.

A recent report by Italian journalist Francesca Borri, who visited the San Pietro Polyclinic intensive care station whilst wearing a protective suit, sends shivers down the spine. "In Bergamo, you die alone. You are buried alone. During the burial the priest blesses the coffin on which a mobile phone is placed so the family can listen in," the reporter wrote in the Italian newspaper Il Fatto Quotidiano.

Read more: Millions of coronavirus infections left undetected worldwide – study

Italy is not the only country where intensive care patients can no longer be visited by their relatives. In almost all countries affected by the COVID-19 pandemic, being present to say goodbye to dying patients is only allowed in exceptional circumstances — even in Germany.

Italien Coronavirus Ponte San Pietro, Bergamo
The Italian army loads the coffins of the deceased of Covid-19, from a municipal warehouse due to the large number of deaths in the Bergamo area Image: picture-alliance/Photoshot

Feelings of guilt and heartache 

Since the coronavirus outbreak, cemeteries are not allowing devotions to take place in their chapels. Farewell services across Germany are now only possible outdoors, with — depending on the state — a maximum of between five and 20 people, including the undertaker, pastor and pallbearers.

This is another slap in the face for relatives unable to say goodbye to loved ones on their deathbed. For an 86-year-old musician from Hamburg, being unable to attend his brother's funeral after he died of cancer has plagued him with feelings of guilt, he says: "Every day I think I should have gone [to visit], even though I belong to the risk group, " he told DW.

It's not only the relatives of the sick and dying who hope these strict regulations will be relaxed. "We are pleading that the visitation bans be loosened for such cases," Mathilde Langendorf, Caritas Germany's press spokesperson told DW. Companionship at the end of life is an important issue, especially for Catholics.

'Extremely stressful'

A spokesperson for the German Hospital Association admitted that "the situation is extremely stressful for many patients and their relatives at present." In an attempt to stop the virus from entering their facilities, "most clinics are severely restricting the number of visits."

Keep up to date with the latest coronavirus developments with our rolling coverage

No uniform rules exist for people wishing to visit relatives in hospitals or nursing homes in Germany. Most facilities follow the recommendations of Germany's Robert Koch Institute for infectious diseases. Exceptions can be applied by health authorities on a case-by-case basis.

For many relatives, prohibiting their presence causes much heartache and a sense of guilt. "In our culture, not being with your loved ones during their final hours is considered a violation of family responsibilities," psychologist Javier Barbero, a member of the Spanish Society of Palliative Medicine, said.

Military trucks in Bergamo
Italian military trucks drive through streets of Bergamo after the army were deployed to move coffins from the town to neighboring provinces after funeral services were overwhelmed.Image: via REUTERS

Online grief counseling

"Without guidance and rites, it seems and if nothing happened. A feeling of unreality sets in," Barbero explains in an interview with Spanish daily El Pais. Together with 60 psychologists and a number of funeral homes in Madrid, he has set up a grief counseling service for relatives where questions, wishes and fears are dealt with via e-mail.

In Italy, many hospitals have joined the "Right to say goodbye" campaign. An initiative started by the ruling Democratic Party (PD) — and which hasn't been without controversary — collects tablets from donors, which are distributed to those dying in hospitals, so they can at least say goodbye digitally to their relatives.

Read more: Coronavirus underscores urgency to bridge digital divide

Mathilde Langendorf from Caritas Germany advocates that relatives should at least be allowed to enter hospitals and nursing homes if they wear protective clothing. She admits, however, that this would be difficult considering the lack of personal protective equipment available even for nursing staff. "If sufficient protective clothing were available, the question of visitation would be quite different," she stressed.

Remain kind to one another

Within in the funeral industry, which the country has now classified as being systemically important, some try to read the new rules as liberally as possible. For example, using automatic lowering devices to place the casket into the grave means a need for fewer pallbearers, making it possible for a relative to come to the funeral.

”You can set up microphones at the gravesite, so the funeral service can be heard up to 600 meters away,” explains an undertaker who wishes to remain anonymous. No one can forbid you standing anywhere in a cemetery. But, he says, the most important thing to keep in mind throughout all of this is that "one remains kind."

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