36 coffins in a gymnasium: An Italian town mourns its earthquake victims

In the Italian town of Ascoli Piceno, 36 coffins laid out in a cavernous gymnasium bear the remains of some of the more than 280 people who died in Wednesday's earthquake.

'I have cried a lot,' says doctor heading team of helpers from the hospital across the street

People gather at coffins in the gymnasium on Friday. (Richard Devey/CBC)

There are 36 coffins laid out in rows in a cavernous gymnasium in the Italian town of Ascoli Piceno, capital of the Marche region. Bouquets of flowers are placed carefully on each coffin, the petals struggling not to wilt in the heat.

Groups of people cluster around some of the coffins, holding each other. Some coffins are on their own.

And here and there a lone mourner sits on a simple wooden chair pulled up close to a coffin. As if they were visiting a patient in a hospital. 

If only. It is the unspoken throb pulsing through the gym. At one end of the room, there are two small coffins. What no one wants to see. Relatives sit nearby with burned-out eyes.
Dr. Vincenzo Luciano heads a team offering psychological support to those who've lost loved ones to the earthquake in the Marche region of Italy. (Richard Devey/CBC )

On Saturday, the Italian government will hold a state funeral in Ascoli Piceno for the victims. Marche is just one of the regions affected by Wednesday's earthquake, but here, authorities say they've found all the bodies of those reported missing.

In all regions, the number of dead has risen to 281.

Priests move through the still air of the gymnasium, hoping to offer support. There is muffled weeping.  Some coffins are carried in, some are taken out, some families opting to hold their own private funerals.

Professionals in white coats

And on the sidelines a cluster of professionals in white coats sits watching: psychiatrists and psychologists brought in to offer support. They work at the hospital with its morgue across the street, which is one reason the gym has been chosen for the funeral.

Dr. Vincenzo Luciano is the head of the team — a man with a kind face, presumably a requirement of his difficult job.

This is his first assignment trying to help victims of a natural disaster. He says it removes the protections associated with "normal" death.
A tent city stands below the mountain village of Arquata del Tronto in Italy's Marche region. The town is not safe for people to return to. (Margaret Evans/CBC)

"All these protections collapse just like the houses and leave you face to face with what has happened," he says.

So how do they help the survivors deal with their grief? They throw away their professional selves.

"We have to in fact become human beings and face the human beings that we have in front of us," says Luciano.

The most difficult task

His most difficult task — the most terrifying, he says — is having to inform a parent that a child has died.

But they do it.

"I have cried a lot," he admits. "And I hope to have cried with the same dignity as the tears of the victims themselves." 

There is a quiet to everything in this place where the dead are waiting to be buried.

About the Author

Margaret Evans

Europe correspondent

Margaret Evans is a correspondent based in the CBC News London bureau. A veteran conflict reporter, Evans has covered civil wars and strife in Angola, Chad and Sudan, as well as the myriad battlefields of the Middle East.