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Epidemic raises emotions at Belgium's busy funeral parlours

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Brussels (AFP)

There's no wild applause from balconies, few spontaneous "thank you" notes, but Belgium's discreet funeral directors face harrowing challenges of their own during the coronavirus epidemic.

The doctors and nurses who strive so hard to keep coronavirus patients away from death's door are national heroes. But society does not like to think too much about those working on the other side of the threshold.

"We have a strong sense of being forgotten. Caregivers at least have a kind of recognition. When it came to masks and protective gowns, we had to look out for ourselves," said Jean-Christophe Saels.

When Saels and his colleagues at a Brussels funeral home head to a hospital or retirement home to pick up the dead, they need to dress in the same hygienic protection as frontline health workers.

"That's not how we normally go about things. We had to turn to hardware stores to find protective gear, which was quickly becoming a rare commodity. We got the suits from the Netherlands," Saels told AFP.

Funeral workers are worried about becoming infected themselves, in particular when they visit care homes for the elderly, which are not equipped with morgues and cannot wait 72 hours to handover a corpse.

It is the same for householders who never make it to the hospital and pass away in domestic lockdown.

- Gut fear -

"We work with fear in our stomach when we go to someone's home and we don't know what he or she has died of. Sometimes the doctor's report lists COVID or possible COVID," said Xavier Bouvy, who runs a funeral parlour founded by his grandfather.

The daily business has changed in other ways, too.

Because of fear of infection or Belgium's public lockdown restrictions, many of the dead are now buried or cremated without the presence of their loved ones.

It was rare before the crisis for funeral staff to be alone at a burial, but Bouvy's firm has handled two such events this week, shooting video of the ceremony for the absent families of one 69-year-old man.

During the brief 10-minute service it was funeral home staff who observed a moment of silence over the coffin, before the mechanical excavator moved in to cover it.

The adjacent grave was freshly dug and covered with a heart-shaped wreath of white lilies. Three more farther along contained former residents of the same care home, hit by an outbreak of the coronavirus strain sweeping the planet.

Even when families can attend, sometimes grief gets the better of their sense of self-protection and funeral staff have to step in to police social-distancing rules.

"People hug, they hold hands. Emotion is stronger than reason. Sometimes it's difficult to handle. Sometimes 25 people turn up, but the rules limit the cemetery to 15 in total, including our staff," Saels said.

It is an emotional time, but a busy one. With the rest of the economy effectively frozen, Bouvy's funeral parlour has seen business double to 15 clients a week, some of them among Belgium's 2,500 COVID-19 dead.

Despite the stress, he doesn't want another job.

"When people say thank you, it's sincere. No-one lies in moments like that," he said.

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