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Even after death COVID-19 victims suffer terrible isolation in Thessaloniki, the city of Greece those most affected by the coronavirus pandemic.

Efcharis Gunseer, 84, was unable to see her daughter during any part of a losing battle with the virus, not at the nursing home where she first fell ill, or at the hospital where she spent several weeks.

Staff in the overwhelmed intensive care ward were also too busy to schedule phone calls, the daughter said.

An aerial view of graves in a cemetery for victims of COVID-19, in the northern city of Thessaloniki, Greece. (AP)
A coffin lies in a grave in a cemetery created for the victims of COVID-19, in the northern city of Thessaloniki, Greece. (AP)

When Ms. Gunseer died in late August, her body was wrapped in two plastic bags and placed in a plastic-wrapped casket.

According to the rules established by the city authorities, she was not buried next to her late husband, but in a section of a cemetery reserved for people infected with the virus.

His tomb remains out of the reach of visitors.

“I think dying alone like that is the worst thing that can happen,” her 45-year-old daughter Mikaela Triandafyllidou told The Associated Press.

“I only saw my mother for a moment, from a distance in the morgue for identification … people are dying with no one there for them, like dogs.”

More than 300 people have been buried so far in the segregated plots, according to Thessaloniki officials.
Coffin bearers, dressed in protective suits and gloves, carry a coffin during a funeral ceremony for a person who died of COVID-19. (AP)
A worker stands on graves during a funeral ceremony for a person who died of COVID-19, in the northern city of Thessaloniki. (AP)

Greece suffered an alarming setback in late October when the country’s eight-month streak of low infections abruptly ended and hospital wards were maxed out.

Thessaloniki, the second largest city in Greece, and neighboring areas in the north of the country were hit the hardest by the increase.

For weeks, the city reported a higher daily number of new cases than Athens, despite having a population about a quarter the size.

The emergency in the city’s hospitals coincided with the two cemeteries in Thessaloniki, where the victims of the pandemic are buried and there are rows of newly dug graves to help keep funerals short.

Flimsy white crosses and small plywood signs mark the graves.

In Greece, where most cemeteries are overcrowded, remains are usually removed after three years of burial and taken to an ossuary, but coronavirus victims will remain buried for 10 years.

Giorgos Avarlis, the deputy mayor of Thessaloniki, said authorities are concerned that body bags and casket covers could slow down how quickly the bodies of pandemic victims decompose.

Workers shovel dirt onto a coffin during a funeral ceremony for a person who died of COVID-19. (AP)

“It is strictly forbidden to bury them anywhere else,” Avarlis said.

He noted that people who died from sexually transmitted diseases were often buried in reserved sections of cemeteries, a practice abandoned decades ago.

Scientific opinion on the posthumous danger posed by COVID-19 is divided.

Coroners wear full protective gear when performing autopsies on infected people, citing studies that indicate that the virus remains posthumously in the respiratory system, respiratory secretions, feces and blood.

However, Symeon Metallidis, assistant professor of internal medicine and infectious diseases at the University of Thessaloniki, believes that the cemetery precautions are mostly unnecessary.

In Greece’s second-largest city, Thessaloniki, victims of the pandemic are buried in quarantined sections of two cemeteries, infuriating many family members who are already heartbroken that their loved ones died with little or no family contact. (AP)

“It seems absurd to do this. It makes no sense,” said prof. Metallidis said.

“There is no evidence of transmission of the virus after death, nor is there any reason to bury them for 10 years.”

At the Evosmos Cemetery in Thessaloniki, an Orthodox Christian priest stands under a small black canopy waiting for funeral services, while gravediggers and coffin bearers dressed in white overalls conduct the burials.

Chrisanthi Botsari, 69, cleans her husband’s grave in a cemetery created for the victims of COVID-19, in the northern city of Thessaloniki, Greece, on December 26, 2020. (AP)

Chrysanthi Botsari, 69, recently lost her 75-year-old husband to the virus.

She said she was never officially told where her burial would take place in late November and that she had to look up the information herself.

“We didn’t know where they would take him. They just told us that it shouldn’t be in the cemeteries where other people are buried because of the coronavirus,” Ms Botsari said.

“For me, that is unacceptable, inhuman.

“All these people died alone and helpless.”


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