The Lost Dead of Milan

As the pandemic overtook Northern Italy, some bodies seemingly vanished. When they were found, families’ sorrow only deepened.

A man examines a makeshift grave made of rocks.
Mauro Catacchio at his mother’s makeshift grave in Milan. Alessio Perrone

MILAN—Like many others in Italy, and now around the world, Mauro Catacchio last saw his mother when she was taken away in an ambulance. That was March 26. Maria Laratro was a 94-year-old mother of three, a retired tailor, and “a fighter,” Catacchio said. She had been going to the hospital three times a week for dialysis, and the doctors told her son that she set an example to other patients with her doggedness late in life.

That day, Catacchio had received a call from her caretaker, who said that his mother felt sick and coughed up blood. Catacchio rushed to her home, called an ambulance, and then quarantined himself—he suspected strongly she had the coronavirus. After she died of the virus in a Milan hospital on April 10, Catacchio and his siblings contracted a funeral home to attend to her wishes to be cremated and placed next to her husband. The Milan crematorium was fully booked, so she would be taken to Padua, some 150 miles away. Still, “everything seemed fine,” Catacchio told me.

Then on the morning of May 1, Catacchio received a phone call from his brother Giuseppe. Something had gone wrong. “I felt everything inside me freeze,” Catacchio said. His brother sounded shaken as he explained what happened: Their mother had not been cremated; the funeral company said it had received an empty urn. Instead, she had been considered an unclaimed body and “buried” in a place that Catacchio didn’t yet know existed, but would make headlines for months to come: the Campo 87.

A close-up of a makeshift grave with a cross.
A number and name on a small white cross mark the makeshift graves in Campo 87. Alessio Perrone

In March, when Italy’s northern region Lombardy was the global epicenter of the coronavirus pandemic, the sheer number of deaths caused logistical problems in many places. The region was the first coronavirus hot spot in the West, and the virus seemed to be more lethal here than in China. It took Italy by storm: Two weeks after the first reported death, the country already reported three-figure death totals every day. Some 16,860 of Italy’s 35,473 coronavirus deaths occurred in Lombardy. Local doctors said they faced a “tsunami” of cases; morgues ran out of room for bodies. Some crematoriums became overwhelmed. Viral photographs showed cemetery chapels packed with caskets awaiting burial or cremation, and army trucks carrying coffins away from Bergamo, east of Milan, in the night, toward less busy crematoriums in other cities.

To ease the pressure on local hospital morgues, Milan shortened the window for families to claim the bodies of people who die in hospitals from 30 days to five. Authorities decided that any unclaimed bodies would be buried in Campo 87, a previously unused field in Milan’s Cimitero Maggiore, a sprawling cemetery home to more than 500,000 graves.

“We have lost many of our children, and in some cases the passing has been even more tragic because some have passed without anyone by their side, without any family,” Milan Mayor Beppe Sala said in a Facebook video filmed on the Campo 87 at the time. “Those whose bodies have not been requested by family members have been buried in this space.” He called it “a tragedy within a tragedy.”

But a few weeks later, a daily newspaper in Milan, Corriere Della Sera, began reporting that many had been buried in the Campo 87 by mistake. For some, this happened because their relatives had become infected themselves and, confined in hospitals or quarantine, could not arrange burials. Other families say they were never told of their relatives’ deaths. And still others, like Catacchio’s, said their instructions for the burial of their relatives had been ignored altogether.

A sign near the graveyard marking Campo 87.
Campo 87 is located in the back of Milan’s Cimitero Maggiore. Alessio Perrone

One morning in late August, Catacchio took me to the Campo 87. It is an expanse of barren gravel at the back of the Cimitero Maggiore so big that the local public transport company runs a bus service with a dozen stops within it. It’s located at the northwestern edge of town, where the city tails off into airy car dealers and low-rise office buildings with tinted windows.

Some 144 identical marble stones and foot-high white plastic crosses stick out of a series of long humps in the ground. Each cross bears a tag seemingly printed with a labeling machine, each with a number and name.

“I have to believe that this is my mother,” Catacchio said as we walked to the grave marked “75. Maria Laratro.” “How can I know for sure? I have to believe she’s down there,” he said. He and his siblings have brought flowers and a photo to the tomb, and framed the naked earth with little white rocks purchased at a home improvement chain.

“Earlier, we would come and find the grave upside down. There were excavators at work, and they would knock over the plants and stones,” Catacchio told me. “There has been no respect for these people.” He calls the place a “potato field.” The fact that his mother is buried here, and not cremated and next to her late husband, has become an unrelenting thought that haunts the family, and sometimes keeps Catacchio up at night. “We did not abandon my mother,” he said. “We looked after her until the very last day.”

It’s unclear how many others were buried here by mistake. The municipality puts the number at 10. The Corriere Della Sera reported that it might be closer to 30. But small portrait photos have been glued to dozens of crosses, and flower vases stand on more than half of the graves—though some have been knocked over and lie on the ground—suggesting the figure might be higher.

“What I can say is that I’d like authorities to dig deep in their hearts and that they allow us to take them away,” Catacchio said. “It only requires a little bit of human conscience.”

But that closure might not come anytime soon. An Italian law passed in 1990 bans exhuming those who died of infectious diseases within two years of the burial. Some families have called for authorities to make an exception in this case. Catacchio said he and his brother have not received a direct response to such requests.

A Milan lawyer, Walter Marini, told me he was denied a meeting with the municipality to discuss the problem. He represents the bereaved family of the late Vittorio Domeniconi, a former police officer and bus driver who died of the coronavirus in early March at 90. He wanted to be buried in another town in Lombardy. When he died, his family members had also fallen sick, although they were not tested for the coronavirus; his wife and sons reported high temperatures and respiratory problems, and his son-in-law was taken to the hospital, where he remained intubated for more than a month. When they were able, Marini said, they provided instructions for Domeniconi’s burial, but as the body of their late father was moved from one morgue to another, the instructions were lost, and he was taken to Campo 87.

“From the beginning, they just want to have the body and the coffin back,” Marini said. He said some family members have developed a sense of guilt because of the events and felt powerless: “They just want to carry on with the funeral, the burial, and move on. I think it’s understandable. They’ve been living through this for six months.”

Milan’s assessor for funeral services, Roberta Cocco, declined to be interviewed for this article. A spokesperson said in an email that the municipality wants to facilitate exhumations, but that in turn must be authorized by the Lombardy health authority. More recently, a Milan official reportedly tried to broker a solution. Catacchio said he is hopeful that he might give his late mother a proper burial as soon as October.

Across one of the roads that surround Campo 87, others have been able to commemorate their loved ones with slabs, flowers, and epitaphs. A 50-year-old husband: “My love will see you through.” A 76-year-old grandmother “Beloved mother.” A 24-year-old man who died abruptly: “A flower on earth.”

But Catacchio and his family cannot grieve. “When we come here, we don’t come for a moment of reflection,” he said as we walked away from the gravel toward the back entrance of the Cimitero Maggiore. “We don’t come with the right state of mind. What we feel,” he said, “is anger.”