In normal times, this mortuary in a northwestern corner of Paris receives two or three corpses per day. But the mounting coronavirus death toll has seen it run out of cold chambers, meaning that caskets are piling up in the visitation rooms.
“At the moment, we have 50 cadavers. They arrive constantly,” Sabine, an undertaker who did not wish to give her full name, told AFP in the French capital, where hospitals are hit hard by the spiralling health crisis.
“So many coffins arrive that we don’t know where to put them,” she said, her voice shaking.
With all 32 places in its cold chambers occupied, the funeral home has been stacking the new arrivals in its six visitation rooms, which are now also full.
France, one of the countries with the highest death tolls from Covid-19, has seen more than 2,600 registered deaths due to the outbreak so far.
But this figure only takes into account those who died in hospitals, not those who perish in retirement facilities or at home, or those who were never tested for the virus.
For many of the bodies arriving, “we are told that the people died natural deaths, that they died of a heart attack or respiratory failure, and later we learn that they may have died of Covid-19,” said Sabine.
“In many cases, we believe they were simply never tested.”
The uncertainty can place undertakers at risk.
At Sabine’s workplace, staff are worried that they are quickly running out of protective goggles, coats, gloves and masks.
“At the moment, there is a shortage of masks and the gloves they gave us are poor quality,” she said.
“We are very afraid of contagion.”
The coffins of confirmed Covid-19 victims arrive closed, and must stay that way. That means the bodies cannot be dressed, made up or otherwise arranged and are buried or cremated as they come.
“The only thing we can do in these cases is to disinfect the coffins and place them in one of our rooms,” said Sabine, who admits to being physically and mentally exhausted.
She and her co-workers have doubled their shifts, working from 7.30 am to 6.30 pm every day.
“Two colleagues have already resigned, nobody wants to work like this,” Sabine said.
Dealing with grieving relatives during the coronavirus crisis only adds to the stress.
To limit contagion risks, the mortuary has limited the number of family members allowed to visit, and shortened the duration of ceremonies to bid a final farewell.
“Every day we receive calls from family members who wish to see their loved ones, and it pains us but we have to tell them it is impossible. It is very difficult,” Sabine said.
The government’s lockdown regulations permit no more than 20 people to attend a funeral until the coronavirus infection curve is broken.
Several funeral homes have taken to live broadcasting funeral services, hoping to make things easier for grieving relatives and friends denied the chance of a last, personal farewell.
Others offer the option of postponing interment and cremation ceremonies until the coronavirus crisis has passed.
But in some cases, the dead go unclaimed.
“There are some, especially the elderly, who arrive and have absolutely no one,” Sabrina said.