Crematoriums in the Czech Republic are bursting at the seams as the coronavirus death toll soars, placing the country at the top of Europe's grim statistics.
For weeks, the Czech Republic has been the hardest hit country in Europe in terms of new deaths per 100,000 inhabitants, according to the European Centre for Disease Prevention and Control.
Since late October, daily coronavirus deaths in the EU member of 10.7 million people have been hovering around 200, compared with the usual average of 300 deaths from all causes.
"We are overburdened, there are far more deaths than usual," said Josef Melich, the owner of a private crematorium in the central city of Tabor.
"The growth is about 40 percent. We cover retirement homes where most people die with Covid-19. It's tough," he told AFP.
The European Federation of Funeral Services says cremations are the most popular method of burial in the largely atheist Czech Republic, which has 27 crematoriums on its territory.
In 2016, more than four out of five deceased Czechs were cremated -- a percentage surpassed only by five other countries, including world leader Japan with 99.98 percent.
"Covid-19 is naturally a burden for all crematoriums," says Ivo Furmancik, director of a crematorium in the eastern city of Ostrava.
The facility with three furnaces covers a large area of land and cremates around 11,000 bodies annually, a number likely to rise to 12,500 this year because of the epidemic.
- Face masks and gloves -
"We're working non-stop, and since the second wave of the virus collides with the typical autumn increase in deaths, we're facing capacity problems," Furmancik told AFP.
The crematorium had to build a new cooling box doubling its capacity within a week as demand started to rise.
"It has been in operation since Monday and I hope it will be enough," said Furmancik.
The epidemic has changed the way Czechs bury their loved ones, following a health ministry regulation issued after the March outbreak.
The deceased are not washed or combed or even dressed -- just placed in plastic bags, which are then disinfected and put into coffins.
"The employees who handle the coffins wear face masks and gloves," said Furmancik.
Melich said several of his employees were stuck at home with the disease, which has so far killed nearly 6,000 people in the country.
"We follow all the guidelines, but you simply can't avoid infection. Our employees come into contact with the virus even when they wear all the protective gear," he said.
- Front line -
Mortuary staff are considered coronavirus front-line workers by the government.
"We're part of crisis management, just like medical staff or waste collectors," said Oldriska Dvorackova, spokeswoman for Prague's cemetery administration.
"We are a service that needs to be available at all times."
Dvorackova said Prague's crematoriums were not as hard-hit as those elsewhere, but added that funerals were affected by the government limit of 10 mourners per service.
"People have stopped ordering traditional funerals in ceremony halls. They now decide to postpone the wake until the day they bury the urn," Dvorackova told AFP.
Furmancik said that when more than 10 people show up for a funeral, he still lets them bid farewell at the coffin.
"But then they have to walk out and stay outside, while the funeral itself is attended by the 10 closest relatives," he added.