Sobering photos reveal how countries are dealing with the dead left by the coronavirus pandemic

awoodward@businessinsider.com (Aylin Woodward,Dave Mosher)
·10 min read
coronovirus bergamo italy workers loading coffins caskets military trucks march 2020 AP_20087465378485
Coffins arriving from the Bergamo area, where the coronavirus infections caused many victims, are being unloaded from a military truck that transported them in the cemetery of Cinisello Balsamo, near Milan in Northern Italy, Friday, March 27, 2020.

Claudio Furlan/LaPresse via AP

As the coronavirus pandemic wears on, countries around the world continue to endure a slow-moving disaster. 

COVID-19, the respiratory disease caused by the virus, is known to have killed more than 116,000 people from around the globe since December. In the hardest-hit nations, the outbreak has forced officials to make tough decisions regarding the storage, disposal, and burial of the dead left in its wake.

Italy and Spain have experienced the highest single-day death tolls of the entire pandemic. New York state — the epicenter of the coronavirus outbreak in the US — has more cases than any other country in the world (aside from the US itself), and 9,385 deaths as of Sunday.

Morgues and cemeteries are running out of room in some regions, and the bodies of some coronavirus victims either remain unidentified or unclaimed by family members. Traditional funerals have all but been eliminated for fear of spreading the illness, forcing mourners to grieve at a distance.

Last week, for example, New York City's Office of the Chief Medical Examiner instituted a new policy stating that if families don't a relative's body within 14 days of death, it will be catalogued and interred in a mass grave site on a Bronx island. In March, the city of Qom, Iran expanded burial pits for people who died from the coronavirus so much that its efforts could be seen from space

Here's how countries are dealing with an influx of the dead.

As the death toll from the coronavirus pandemic mounts, concerns about the safe handling of COVID-19 bodies remains high.

A body wrapped in plastic is loaded onto a refrigerated container truck used as a temporary morgue by medical workers wearing personal protective equipment due to COVID-19 concerns.
A body wrapped in plastic is loaded onto a refrigerated container truck used as a temporary morgue by medical workers wearing personal protective equipment in New York City.

Experts aren't sure whether human remains are infectious, but the likelihood is high, forensic scientists Ahmad Samarji wrote in a post for The Conversation. Experts are urging that governments limit the viewing and handling of bodies after death.

However, it's challenging to limit contact with the dead when daily death tolls are high that city morgues and funeral homes are struggling to keep up.

In Wuhan, China, where the outbreak began, funerals, burials and other related activities involving the corpses of deceased victims were banned months ago.

Wuhan hospital
A view of healthcare workers transporting bodies outside a hospital in Wuhan, China, February 5, 2020.

Getty

China's National Health Commission issued regulations on February 1 stating that all victims who died of the coronavirus must be cremated at the nearest facility. "No farewell ceremonies or other funeral activities involving the corpse shall be held," the NHC announcement reads.

Wuhan, and most of China, was locked down in late January, making it extremely challenging for families to pick their loved ones' ashes until recently, NPR reported.

Authorities in Wuhan have required that families reserve a time slot to pick up those ashes and bury them, according to NPR, all while accompanied by an official.

The pandemic has shaken Europe. In Ukraine, the town of Dnipro forbid medical workers from carrying out autopsies on those believed to have died from the virus.

ukraine coronavirus burial
A view shows dozens of freshly dug graves at a cemetery in the eastern Ukrainian city of Dnipro on April 7, 2020.

Dnipro has dug 615 graves and readied 2,000 seal-able body bags in preparation for COVID-19 fatalities, the mayor's spokeswoman, Yulia Vitvitsk, told AFP on April 6.

"We are preparing for the worst," mayor Borys Filatov said on his Facebook page last week.

Italy is undoubtedly one of the hardest hit countries. The Mediterranean nation has one of the highest death tolls to date: at least 19,900 since its first confirmed case on January 31.

bergamo italy coronavirus funerals
Cemetery workers and funeral agency workers in protective masks transport a coffin of a person who died from COVID-19, into a cemetery in Bergamo, Italy on March 16, 2020.

Italy passed an emergency national law that banned religious ceremonies, including funerals.

In Bergamo, one of the country's outbreak epicenters, a video showed a convey of Italian army trucks ferrying dozens of coffins to remote cremation sites because local morgues couldn't cope with the number of new deaths.

coronovirus bergamo italy workers loading coffins caskets military trucks march 2020 AP_20087465378485
Coffins arriving from the Bergamo area, where the coronavirus infections caused many victims, are being unloaded from a military truck that transported them in the cemetery of Cinisello Balsamo, near Milan in Northern Italy, Friday, March 27, 2020.

A convoy of at least 10 military trucks was filmed passing through the city on March 18.

The army was transporting 61 bodies to cremation sites in 12 Italian towns, including Modena and Parma, the national newspaper Corriere Della Sera reported.

Spain has also made some difficult decisions regarding funerals during its outbreak.

coronavirus death spain lockdown priest
A priest gives a response in front the coffin of a woman who died of COVID-19 and that she will be cremated alone because her relatives are in quarantine at Carabanchel cemetery during partial lockdown to combat the novel coronavirus outbreak in Madrid, Spain, on March 27, 2020.

On April 2, Spain set a grim record in the coronavirus pandemic, recording more deaths in a single day than any nation so far: 950.

Strict bans on gatherings have limited Spaniards' ability to mourn and properly bury their dead. CNN reported that, in the capital of Madrid, drive-through funerals are commonplace. Families must say farewell to their loved ones from a distance; there's no visitation or public burial. 

In March, burial pits in Qom, Iran grew so large amid the country's devastating coronavirus outbreak that they were visible from space.

Behesht-e Masoumeh complex near Qom.
The Behesht-e Masoumeh complex in Qom, Iran.

This satellite image, taken by the private space technology company Maxar Technologies, shows the Behesht-e Masoumeh complex, which includes the city's biggest cemetery.

Iranian authorities dug two new trenches, both about 100 yards, last month. The images suggest that graves were being hurriedly dug, which underscores the scale of the outbreak in Iran — and the difficulties officials are having in quelling it. 

There have been more than 68,000 coronavirus cases reported in Iran, and at least 4,200 deaths.

The story in South America is similar: Ecuador is racing to build an emergency cemetery outside Guayaquil, its largest city, as the country runs out of burial plots.

Guayaquil Ecuador coronavirus Covid-19 funeral burial cemetary
People construct burial vaults in the Angela Maria Canalis cemetery as the coronavirus disease (COVID-19) overwhelms sanitary authorities, in Guayaquil, Ecuador, April 8, 2020.

The country has more than 7,400 cases, and at least 330 deaths linked to the virus, and NBC News reported that delays with funerals had some families keeping dead bodies in their homes for days.

The Ecuadorian government, which began storing bodies in giant refrigerated containers last week, hopes to bury about 100 people a day at Guayaquil's new cemetery, which can fit 2,000 plots.

In New York City — now the epicenter of the pandemic — at least 6,180 people have died from COVID-19. Anticipating the rising death toll, the city rolled out dozens of refrigerated semi-trailer trucks and complexes of chilled tents near hospitals.

coronavirus covid 19 refrigerated semi trailer trucks temporary morgues randalls island park nyc new york city bronx april 9 2020 04 09T234655Z_1_LYNXNPEG382I5_RTROPTP_4_HEALTH CORONAVIRUS USA BODIES.JPG
Refrigerated tractor trailers that can be used as morgues are seen, amid the coronavirus disease (COVID-19) outbreak, outside Icahn Stadium on Randall's Island in New York City, April 9, 2020.

An average of 428 people have died from COVID-19  each day within the city's five boroughs between April 1-7, or about one person every 3 minutes 22 seconds. But that counts likely does not include probable cases like at-home cardiac arrests.

Funeral directors, who claim the bodies from morgues for families, say they are overwhelmed by the slow-moving disaster in NYC and can't keep up.

"I don't know how many more bodies I can take," Patrick Marmo, a funeral-home operator based in Brooklyn, previously told Business Insider. "No one in the New York City area possibly has enough equipment to care for human remains of this magnitude."

Yet even temporary morgue facilities, which expanded typical capacity for 900 bodes to more than 3,600, became so full that officials began discussing alternative options, including temporary interment in city parks.

coronavirus christian central park tents
coronavirus christian central park tents

Mark Levine, the chair of the city's Council Health Committee, said on April 6 that officials were preparing to dig trenches in a city park to temporarily bury the bodies of those who have died from COVID-19 — an option described in the city's 2016 fatality surge plan.

He later walked back the notion.

"I have spoken to many folks in City gov't today, and received unequivocal assurance that there will be *no* burials in NYC Parks," Levine later tweeted. "All have stated clearly that if temporary interment should be needed it will be done on Hart Island."

What the city did do was speed up the burials of unclaimed bodies on a remote island in the Bronx.

New York's potter's field, cemetery, death
A scene of the potter's field on Hart Island in the Bronx.

The city's Office of the Chief Medical Examiner (OCME) stated Thursday that decedents not claimed from temporary storage by a funeral home within 14 days would be interred at the Bronx's Hart Island.

OCME initially planned to wait only six days, but funeral directors pushed back, arguing the pandemic and backup of bodies might prevent families from getting their loved ones' remains in time.

Hart Island is home to a graveyard called City Cemetery, which contains more than 1 million unclaimed bodies — the largest such site in the US.

coronavirus covid 19 burial trenches excavator hart island potters field new york city cemetery nyc bronx drone photo april 8 2020 04 09T164203Z_1653016799_RC241G9P3V2L_RTRMADP_3_HEALTH CORONAVIRUS USA HART ISLAND.JPG
coronavirus covid 19 burial trenches excavator hart island potters field new york city cemetery nyc bronx drone photo april 8 2020 04 09T164203Z_1653016799_RC241G9P3V2L_RTRMADP_3_HEALTH CORONAVIRUS USA HART ISLAND.JPG

Those who are interred can either be removed by family members or left at rest for no cost, the OCME website added.

Mass burials occur on Hart Island on a weekly basis, but an unnamed funeral director who's familiar with the disinterring process there indicated it was highly unusual to see a roughly 200-foot-long trench dug in anticipation of the many bodies that the city expects to arrive.

coronavirus covid 19 burial trenches hart island potters field city cemetery nyc new york city bronx drone photo april 8 2020 04 09T164148Z_1096290949_RC241G9TTBVT_RTRMADP_3_HEALTH CORONAVIRUS USA HART ISLAND.JPG
Drone pictures show caskets in a trench on New York's Hart Island where the department of corrections is dealing with more burials overall, amid the coronavirus disease (COVID-19) outbreak in New York City, April 8, 2020.

If hundreds (or even thousands) of bodies are buried there in the coming weeks, families might have to wait until long after the pandemic subsides to claim and move loved ones to a final resting place.

"It's going to take years to get bodies off of Hart Island at that rate," the funeral director told Business Insider.

"The pictures of our fellow New Yorkers being buried on Hart Island are devastating for all of us," NYC mayor Bill de Blasio tweeted on Friday.

coronavirus covid 19 burial trenches inmates burying unclaimed bodies wooden caskets hart island potters field new york city cemetery nyc bronx april 9 2020 04 09T164235Z_1389564795_RC241G91KIPT_RTRMADP_3_HEALTH CORONAVIRUS USA HART ISLAND.JPG
Drone pictures show bodies being buried on New York's Hart Island where the department of corrections is dealing with more burials overall, amid the coronavirus disease (COVID-19) outbreak in New York City, April 9, 2020.

Mike Segar/Reuters

De Blasio added: "There will be no mass burials on Hart Island. Everything will be individual and every body will be treated with dignity. [...] We do not anticipate temporary burials on Hart Island except for the unclaimed."

John Haltiwanger contributed reporting to this story.

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