Steps away from a warehouse containing row upon row of coffins at Prima Porta cemetery in Rome, anger simmered among a group of about 12 funeral workers queueing up outside the administrative office.
Some were there to deliver bodies for burial or cremation, others to collect the ashes of the deceased cremated months ago. “It’s a tragic, shameful situation,” said Maurizio, a funeral company worker. “Just look around you – we’re all waiting. They blame it on coronavirus, but that’s just an excuse. This is how it is every day.”
“The bodies arrive but they don’t have space,” said Gilberto, another funeral worker. “And so there’s a long wait.”
Spread over 140 hectares (346 acres) to the north of Rome, Prima Porta is the largest cemetery in Italy. But it is short of burial plots and its crematorium – the only one in the Italian capital – is operating at half capacity.
People with family members who died in January say they have still not been buried or cremated, and mortuaries at other cemeteries in the city have similar backlogs. Ama, the municipal company that manages cemeteries, says the delays have been exacerbated by coronavirus deaths and regulations imposed by the health ministry due to the pandemic.
But while Covid-19 has contributed to an increase in deaths in Rome, funeral directors also blame the failure to create more burial space. They claim that up to 2,000 bodies awaiting burial or cremation are being stored in warehouses at Prima Porta.
“There are more waiting in other cemeteries,” said Gianni Gibellini, president of EFI, the association representing funeral directors, which last week filed a criminal complaint to prosecutors over the burial chaos. “Rome’s cemeteries are in a state of decay, but more than anything they don’t have space to bury the dead. We need more cremation ovens and burial plots to put the urns of cremated people in and, moreover, we need space to bury people in the ground.”
A video recorded on Monday and seen by the Guardian shows hearses queueing up outside Prima Porta’s administration office. Later in the clip, the cemetery’s manager tells a group of funeral directors: “There is no space.”
Ama said it was doing its utmost to resolve the situation and that it was working to create 60,000 new burial plots across the city. The company has also threatened to sue funeral directors, who earlier this month laid wreaths close to Rome’s city hall in protest, for “causing alarm”.
The alarm was in fact first raised in early April by a bereaved relative, Oberdan Zuccaroli, who mounted huge billboards across Rome with the message “Mum, I’m sorry I’ve not been able to have you buried yet”. Zuccaroli, who owns a billboard company, told the Italian press that his mother died of a heart attack on 8 March. His aunt, who died on 9 January, had also not been buried.
Rome’s mayor, Virginia Raggi, on Friday made a public apology and said she had summoned managers from Ama, also in charge of the city’s rubbish disposal, to explain the situation, after Andrea Romano, an MP with the Democratic party, said he was still waiting to bury the ashes of his son, who died on 22 February and was cremated 20 days later.
“Aside from delays linked to the Covid emergency, I was promised an extraordinary intervention to address the increase in the number of burials,” Raggi wrote on social media.
Other grieving relatives tell similar stories. Raffaele Chiurco’s mother died on 25 January and her body was kept in a warehouse for more than a month in Civitavecchia, a port city located about 50 miles from Rome, before being cremated in Grosseto, Tuscany. Her ashes are now in an urn at Prima Porta, but Chiurco is yet to receive notification for a burial.
The crematorium at Prima Porta is equipped to operate 50 cremations a day. If capacity has been reached, the deceased can be cremated outside Rome, but only with authorisation from Ama.
“I had to wait more than a month to cremate my mum in Grosseto and now, three months later, her ashes are in custody at Prima Porta,” said Chiurco. “We’re living in a city that is undignified, the capital of Italy … It is absurd.”
Alcide Catelani is also waiting to bring home an urn containing the ashes of his brother, who died on 24 December. “Something isn’t working,” he said. “I don’t know if it’s down to the pandemic, disagreements, or if they simply don’t care.”
Politicians planning to run against Raggi in Rome’s mayoral elections in the autumn said the crisis could have been avoided had the administration followed through with plans in 2017 to expand cemeteries and increase capacity for cremations.
“We knew the cemeteries were heading towards saturation four years ago,” said Carlo Calenda, leader of Azione, a liberal political party. “This issue has been going on in Rome for months now and shows the incapacity of city hall to manage it.”