Plot 87 occupies a barren corner of Milan’s austere main cemetery. Here, the soil has been freshly turned to make new graves, 120 in all, the morning we visited. Another body was to be buried that afternoon.
A simple, white plastic cross marks each grave. Taped to each cross is a piece of paper bearing a surname, sometimes with an initial, sometimes with a first name. No date of birth. No date of death. Cemetery workers have placed a single plastic flower on each grave.
Here lie those who succumbed to coronavirus in Milan, but whose bodies have yet to be claimed.
An official at the cemetery, who requested that his name not be used, told me most of them were old and had been in nursing homes. Many, he added, had no families. In a few cases, the families of the dead have been unable to claim the bodies because of the lockdown.
With morgues filled to capacity, and more dying each day at the peak of the outbreak, authorities in Italy’s coronavirus hotspots had little choice but to bury the unclaimed dead like this. If their families come forward to claim the bodies once the epidemic is over, the remains will be exhumed and reburied.
Those laid to rest here died alone. Then again, with coronavirus, almost everyone dies alone.
Carla Porfirio wanted desperately to be with her mother in her final moments.
Before the coronavirus outbreak, she visited her 85-year-old mother Michela, who suffered from Alzheimer’s disease, every day in Milan’s sprawling Palazzolo-Don Gnocchi Institute nursing home.
When the nursing home abruptly stopped relatives from visiting their loved ones as the virus spread, Porfirio said she called every day to ask about her mother. Every day the staff reassured her Michela was fine.
Porfirio is concerned that she wasn’t told when her mother first became unwell. When she called the home on Sunday April 5, she was informed that Michela had been put on oxygen and given morphine.
She died the next day.