The coffins are stacked three high in the dark memorial room of the Meissen crematorium, crammed into empty offices and stored in the hallways. Many are sealed with plastic wrap, others are labeled “risk of infection”, “urgent” or simply “COVID”.
A wave of coronavirus deaths in this corner of East Germany has boosted the business of crematorium manager Joerg Schaldach and his staff, but no one is celebrating.
“The situation is a bit tense for us right now,” Schaldach said as another funeral director’s van pulled up outside.
The crematorium would typically have 70 to 100 coffins on site at this time of year, when flu season takes its toll on the elderly.
“It’s normal that more people die in winter than in summer,” Schaldach said. “It always has been.”
Now he has 300 bodies waiting to be cremated and every day dozens more are delivered to the Modernist building on a hill overlooking Meissen, an ancient town best known for its delicate porcelain and impressive Gothic castle.
Meissen County again took the unwanted lead in Germany’s COVID-19 charts on Monday, with an infection rate three times the national average. The state of Saxony, where Meissen is located, includes six of Germany’s 10 most affected counties.
Schaldach says the crematorium is doing its best to meet demand, turning on the twin ovens every 45 minutes and handling 60 cremations a day.
“The ashes always end up in the right urn,” he says.
But while staff would normally try to make the deceased look handsome so loved ones can say their final farewells, infection rules now mean that the coffins of COVID victims must remain closed throughout, making the the whole process even more difficult for those involved.
“It’s our business, we’ve seen death many times,” Schaldach said. “The problem we see is that grieving loved ones need our help. And at the moment there is a greater need for words of consolation because they gave their deceased loved one to the ambulance and they are never seeing them again.
Some have linked Saxony’s high infection rate to wider anti-government sentiment in a state where more than a quarter voted for the far-right Alternative for Germany party in the last national elections.
Its politicians have opposed the need to wear masks, limits on gathering people and closing shops. A few have even categorically denied the existence of a pandemic.
Other commentators have noted the large number of older people in the state and its reliance on workers at nursing homes in the neighboring Czech Republic, where COVID-19 infections are even higher.
Meissen officials, including the head of the county administration, the association of local doctors and the politician representing the region in parliament, an ally of Chancellor Angela Merkel, all declined to be asked about the situation.
Saxony Governor Michael Kretschmer admitted in a recent interview with the Freie Presse daily that he had underestimated the impact of the pandemic on his state and paid too much attention to those who demanded that businesses and schools remain open.
Video of Kretschmer speaking to anti-lockdown protesters outside his home on Sunday ends with his departure after one person donned a mask resembling the German Imperial War Flag, a symbol favored by far-right extremists .
Schaldach, the director of the crematorium, says most people in Saxony accept the rules. But he, too, has read comments on branded social media reports of bodies piling up in his crematorium as fake news.
“Those who believe in conspiracy theories cannot be helped. We don’t want to argue with them, ”he told The Associated Press. “They have their beliefs and we have our knowledge.”
Down in Meissen, the streets are empty, devoid of the usual tourists or even the bustle of locals.
Franziska Schlieter runs a gourmet food store in the historic city center which is among the few allowed to remain open during the lockdown. His store, which has been run by five generations of his family, is supported by a trickle of regulars who buy lottery cards and gift baskets.
“In the Bible, God sent plagues to people when they didn’t behave,” said Schlieter, who believes that facilitating the Christmas lockdown was a mistake. “Sometimes I have to think about it.”
On the cobbled square, Matthias Huth holds out a lonely food truck in front of his restaurant with shutters. He defends those who have questioned government restrictions on COVID-19, but says skepticism should not justify the refusal.
“Conversations are starting to change,” Huth said as he served up a dish of chopped pudding, sauerkraut and mash known locally as Dead Grandma. “Everyone wants this to be over.”