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Mourning in coronavirus times

Silke Bartlick
March 24, 2020

Images of military vehicles transporting the bodies of coronavirus victims in Italy have shocked the world. Does the COVID-19 pandemic change the way we deal with death?

Poster in solidarity with doctors, nurses
Image: Imago Images/Independent Photo Agency Int./S. Agazzi

In the city of Bergamo in northern Italy, military vehicles have been on the road for days. There are so many victims of the coronavirus, there is no other way to transport corpses to the crematorium. The disturbing pictures of the convoys filled with the deceased have been gone around the world on the internet. The grim message: In Corona times, people die without their loved ones at their side; the virus does not care about dignity in death, nor about the grief of relatives and friends.

Bergamo has more infected people than any other province in the country. Last week alone, over 300 people died there, according to local authorities. Most passed away in a hospital room without a relative or friend to hold their hand or share their fear. Due to the danger of infection, visitors are not allowed in the hospitals, and many family members are in quarantine themselves.

The virus makes the rules

Corona has its own playbook. One is that death caused by the virus cannot be dealt with as a matter of everyday life. Another is that the bereaved must remain alone with their loss. Funerals are currently taking place in northern Italy with unprecedented speed and in the absence of mourners. Waiting lists are long, and by law people are still not allowed to meet.

Death notices on a billboard line an empty street in Alzano Lombardo, near Bergamo
Death notices on a billboard line an empty street in Alzano Lombardo, near BergamoImage: picture-alliance/dpa/AP/L. Bruno

Because people cannot visit one another, friends and relatives cannot gather in person to share memories of the deceased. No comforting embrace can take place and there is no funeral ceremony to participate in together. The bereaved must, it seems, find support from within themselves, and with phone and video calls to family.

Community members often learn of losses through obituaries in newspapers. On March 13, the local newspaper L'Eco di Bergamo published ten full pages of obituaries. It seems that the virus determines not only our everyday lives, but even the rules by which we leave life, or mourn.

Death shoved aside

In his study History of Death, the French historian Philippe Ariès demonstrated that the relationship between Western man and death changed dramatically in the 19th century. Until then, death had been a familiar companion for millennia, an accepted part of life. But modern man, according to Ariès, has suppressed the idea of death, pushing it aside out of fear. In our achievement-oriented society, death is not planned for; it is considered a disruption that is at best managed rationally.

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Today, when people die, they are rarely surrounded by family and friends and are instead removed from the public eye. In parts of southern Europe, the situation is still somewhat different, particularly in places where different generations of family members still live together under one roof, putting the circle of life into focus. Most of the time, however, what Ariés described in 1978 is completely true: death has grown alien to us and disappeared from everyday life.

We experience it primarily as a cultural product, removed from reality, i.e., when people die on stages, movies and television, often in spectacular manners and with lots of blood. Death has degenerated into an art form, incessantly reproducing its own suppression.

Back to life

With the coronavirus, the situation is now different: In Lombardy, the dead must be taken to the crematorium in military vehicles. There's no doubt: The convoys have made death visible, as if it had decided to reclaim its place in the midst of life, impossible to ignore.

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In large parts of the world, public life is currently at a standstill, as is consumption and production, as societies struggle to contain the epidemic. Despite the huge cost, mankind has focused on human dignity and protection. That is perhaps a small consolation for all those whose relatives, friends or neighbors nonetheless had to leave this world. 

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