Italy honors, remembers virus dead with Donizetti’s Requiem

ROME (AP) – Italy bid farewell to its coronavirus dead on Sunday with a haunting Requiem concert performed at the entrance to the cemetery of Bergamo, the hardest-hit province in the onetime epicenter of the outbreak in Europe.

President Sergio Mattarella was the guest of honor, and said his presence made clear that all of Italy was bowing down to honor Bergamo’s dead, “the thousands of men and women killed by a sickness that is still greatly unknown and continues to threaten the world.”

To respect social distancing rules, the guest list for the outdoor evening concert was limited to Mattarella and mayors of Bergamo’s 243 cities acting as representatives of their communities. RAI state television, which broadcast the concert live, said a few health care workers and representative of families who lost loved ones to the pandemic were also invited.

Aside from the soloists and conductor, masks were omnipresent including for the chorus, and the wind instruments were arranged behind Plexiglas. The orchestra performed the unfinished Requiem funeral Mass of Bergamo native Gaetano Donizetti, one of Italy’s most important 19th century composers.

Bergamo recorded its first positive case Feb. 23 and by the end of March had registered a 571% increase in excess deaths compared to the five-year monthly average. Images in mid-March of an army convoy hauling caskets away because Bergamo’s cemetery and crematoriums were full came to epitomize the horrific toll of the virus in Italy’s north.

Many of the more than 6,000 Bergamo dead never had a funeral celebrated in their honor, depriving their families of the chance to say goodbye. Mattarella said he hoped the Requiem event would help them remember their loved ones, even as Italy takes stock about what went wrong in Bergamo and beyond as the region’s health care system was overwhelmed by the tsunami of sick.

“Remember means reflecting with rigorous precision what didn’t work, the shortcomings of the system, errors to avoid repeating,” Mattarella said. “It means at the same time recalling the value of the positive that was shown,” he said, citing the “extraordinary humanity” of doctors, nurses, civil protection crews and volunteers.

One of the invited guests at the concert was Luca Fusco, a Bergamo native who early on in the pandemic started a Facebook group to collect testimony of Italians whose loved ones had died. The group, “Noi Denunciaremo” (We will denounce) now has nearly 60,000 members and has mounted a legal battle to find justice for the dead and ascertain what if any systemic errors or political decisions contributed to the heavy loss of life.

Some members of the group protested outside the cemetery Sunday behind a banner reading “Truth and Justice.” Critics faulted organizers for creating a mere political spectacle without the true victims of the crisis.

Fusco, whose father died in the pandemic, said the lack of family members of the victims was “like a wedding without the spouses.” But he said he hoped Mattarella’s presence would allow mourning families “to nourish the hope that not the entire political elite is willingly trying to hide.”

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