AP PHOTOS: Pandemic robs Italian funerals of communal spirit

MONTEPAGANO, Italy (AP) — Normally, Italian funerals can involve the whole town.

Mourners form a procession, sometimes blocks long. When a coffin is carried out of church after a funeral service, applause rings out as those who couldn’t fit inside offer one last salute.

But coronavirus containment rules have put a halt to these practices, cherished for centuries, as funeral gatherings were banned to avoid contagion. Last month, announcing a partial easing of lockdown measures, Prime Minister Giuseppe Conte said brief funeral services could now be held in churches, but mourners must number no more than 15, wear masks and stay a safe distance apart.

When Mayor Sabatino Di Girolamo of Roseto degli Abruzzi, an Adriatic seaside resort, relayed the directive to his townspeople, he could little imagine that within a few days the new rules would apply to the funeral of his 91-year-old mother, Annunziata.

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She suffered a stroke while cooking Sunday lunch on Mother’s Day, and died within hours. Two days later, her funeral was held in Montepagano, a medieval hilltop hamlet of some 700 people where she lived on the outskirts of Roseto degli Abruzzi. The mayor and the few family members allowed to join him felt wrapped in unsettling solitude as they experienced the strangely spartan ways of bidding farewell to the deceased.

A few townspeople stood in doorsteps to watch the coffin being taken to Santissima Annunziata Church, which dates to the early 17th century. Some in the pews took turns stepping outside, so others could join the service for a few minutes. No hymns were played on the organ, to keep the ceremony short.

“The church wouldn’t have been able to hold the crowd of people, considering all the love she gave and received during her life in our community,” the mayor said of his mother, looking regretfully at the sparse attendance.

The pandemic has “altered such ancestral habits that are deeply rooted in our culture,” Di Girolamo said. “We Italians like to hug, to seek mutual comfort, to enjoy life together. What will become of that? Now we are all frightened by each other and by the future.”

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D’Emilio reported from Rome.

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