In Germany’s Virus Hotspot, Bodies Pile Up At Crematorium

In Germany’s Virus Hotspot, Bodies Pile Up At Crematorium

In Germany’s Virus Hotspot, Bodies Pile Up At Crematorium - Vantage News Nigeria
A coffin is cremated in the crematorium in Meissen, Germany, on Monday, January 11, 2021.[Markus Schreiber/AP]
The coffins are stacked three high in the Meissen crematorium’s sombre memorial hall, piled up in empty offices and stored in hallways. Many are sealed with plastic wrapping, others are labelled “infection risk,” “urgent” or simply “COVID”.

On Monday, Meissen county once again took the unwanted lead in Germany’s COVID-19 tables, with an infection rate three times the national average. The state of Saxony, where Meissen is located, includes six of the 10 worst-hit counties in Germany.

This surge in coronavirus deaths in eastern Germany has boosted business for crematorium manager Joerg Schaldach and his staff, but nobody is celebrating.

In Germany’s Virus Hotspot, Bodies Pile Up At Crematorium - Vantage News Nigeria
Joerg Schaldach, manager of the Meissen crematorium, poses for a photo during an interview with the Associated Press in the memorial hall of the crematorium in Meissen, Germany, on Monday, January 11, 2021 [AP Photo/Markus Schreiber]
“The situation is a little bit tense for us at the moment,” Schaldach said as another undertaker’s van pulled up outside.

The crematorium would typically have 70 to 100 coffins on site at this time of year, when the flu season takes its toll on the elderly.

According to Schaldach, “It’s normal for more people to die in winter than in summer, that’s always been the case.”

Now he has 300 bodies waiting to be cremated and each day dozens more are delivered to the modernist building on a hill overlooking Meissen, an ancient town better known for its delicate porcelain and impressive Gothic castle.

Schaldach says the crematorium is doing its best to keep up with demand, firing up the twin furnaces every 45 minutes and managing 60 cremations a day.

“The ashes still end up in the right urn,” he said.

But whereas staff would normally try to ensure the deceased look good for relatives to bid their final farewells, infection rules now mean the caskets of COVID victims have to remain shut throughout, making the entire process even harder for those involved.

“It’s our business, we’ve seen death many, many times,” said Schaldach. “The problem we see is that the grieving relatives need our help. And at the moment, there’s a greater need for words of consolation because they’ve given their deceased loved one to the ambulance and then they never see them again.”

Some have linked Saxony’s high infection rate to wider anti-government sentiment in a state where more than a quarter voted for the far-right Alternative for Germany party at the last national election.

Its politicians have objected to the need to wear masks, limits on people gathering and the closure of stores. A few have even denied the existence of a pandemic outright.

Other commentators have noted the state’s large number of elderly and its reliance on nursing home workers from the neighbouring Czech Republic, where COVID-19 infections are even higher.

Officials in Meissen, including the head of the county administration, the local doctors’ association and the politician representing the region in parliament, an ally of Chancellor Angela Merkel, all declined to be interviewed about the situation.

Saxony’s governor, Michael Kretschmer, acknowledged in a recent interview with daily newspaper Freie Presse that he had underestimated the effect of the pandemic in his state and paid too much attention to those calling for businesses and schools to remain open.

A video showing Kretschmer talking to anti-lockdown protesters outside his home on Sunday ends with him walking away after one person dons a mask made to look like the German Imperial War Flag, a symbol favoured by far-right extremists.

Schaldach, the crematorium manager, says most people in Saxony accept the rules. But he, too, has read comments on social media branding reports about bodies piling up at his crematorium as fake news.

“Those who believe in conspiracy theories can’t be helped. We don’t want to debate with them,” he told The Associated Press. “They have their beliefs and we have our knowledge.”

Down in Meissen, the streets are empty, devoid of the usual tourists or even the bustle of locals.

Franziska Schlieter runs a gourmet food store in the historic city centre that is among the few allowed to stay open amid the lockdown. Her store, which has been run by five generations of her family, is being sustained by a trickle of regulars buying lottery cards and gift baskets.

“In the Bible, God sent people plagues when they didn’t behave,” said Schlieter, who feels easing the lockdown over Christmas was a mistake. “Sometimes I have to think of that.”

On the cobblestone square, Matthias Huth tends a lone food truck outside his shuttered restaurant. He defends those who have questioned the government’s COVID-19 restrictions, but says scepticism should not justify denial.

“Conversations are starting to change,” Huth said, “Everyone wants it to be over.”

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