The coronavirus pandemic collapsed funeral services. In April and May 2020, efforts to contain the virus brought almost everything to a standstill. The funeral homes were closed to the public; cemeteries, too. The incinerator furnaces were, for weeks, working 24 hours a day. Mémora, the largest of the three funeral homes operating in Barcelona, installed air coolers in April on two floors of the Collserola mortuary car park. There he installed 2,000 coffins to preserve the corpse while waiting to have the capacity to bury or incinerate them again. “We have 900 deceased waiting,” says Fernando Sánchez, communication director of the company.
EL PAÍS has visited the Sancho de Ávila funeral home in Barcelona to reconstruct what happened during those months and the consequences that the virus has left behind. The covid has disrupted the routines of workers and has imposed new protocols. For the first time, the deceased are divided according to whether the cause of death was the coronavirus or some other disease. How the last goodbye is given to the deceased now not only depends on the economic level of the family members, but, above all, on the coronavirus.
Jordi Fernández is the head of thanatopraxia at Memora. He acts as a cicerone for Sancho de Ávila and shows one of the rooms where some of his companions — Jordi, Juanjo and Carolina— “receive, clean, disinfect, embalm, make up and dress” corpses before the relatives see them. The room shows the respect with which the workers approach their daily work.
After the declaration of the state of alarm, last year, the work multiplied. “We concentrate the non-covid deceased in Sancho de Ávila and the covid in the Collserola funeral home. Even so, at the beginning we were all going blind and I am convinced that we carry out thanatopraxies on deceased covid ”, he admits. Today, for the first time, in mortuaries a difference is made between the deceased covid and non-covid. The deceased covid cannot go through the room of the thanatopractors. Upon arriving at the funeral home facilities, they are transferred to some secluded refrigerators where there are only deaths from coronavirus. “When the funeral services collect a deceased covid, the corpse is disinfected, it is placed in a watertight bag and disinfected again, it is transferred to these refrigerators,” he says.
“But it is forbidden,” he adds, “to practice any thanatopraxia treatment on them and therefore the deceased is not exposed in the funeral home,” reports Fernández. “I think an injustice is being done. If a corpse has a pacemaker, it cannot be cremated without removing that device from the heart. They say it could damage the ovens. Pacemaker removal must be done by the thanatopractor. For the deceased covid, by regulation, we cannot remove it and therefore they have to bury the corpse even if the deceased did not want to ”, he denounces.
Those responsible for funeral services remember the first wave. “The cemeteries were closed and there were people waiting for the funeral cars at the door of the cemetery because that was the only goodbye they could give them. We work very professionally. And let no one doubt that, despite the excess of corpses, his family member is in the coffin, niche or grave that we assign him ”, he defends.
The civil registries of Catalonia registered a total of 79,778 deaths throughout 2020, 21.9% more than the 65,406 deaths in 2019. Only the Mémora funeral home carried out, last year in the province of Barcelona, 16,400 funeral services, a 24% more than in 2019.
In Sancho de Ávila, Fernández has a claim from all the workers towards the institutions: “We are essential personnel. We handle bodies and deal with relatives of those infected. We should also be among the first groups to receive the vaccine ”.
Eddie is an Australian news reporter with over 9 years in the industry and has published on Forbes and tech crunch.