It was a scene that moved a nation: mourners clinging to one another and sobbing over neat rows of more than 200 coffins, some with tiny children’s caskets resting on top.
Italians joined in a collective outpouring of grief today as victims of Italy’s most devastating earthquake in a generation were remembered at an open-air funeral Mass in hard-hit L’Aquila.
Pope Benedict XVI sent a message urging survivors not to give up hope. And Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi captured the pathos which swept the country, wondering aloud: “How can one not be moved by so much pain?”
The 6.3-magnitude quake – which killed 289 and left nearly 40,000 homeless - struck on Monday at the start of Holy Week, heightening the sense of suffering in the deeply Roman Catholic country.
Twenty children and teenagers were among the dead. The youngest victim would have been five months old on Easter Sunday.
Amid the rows of simple varnished wood coffins draped with flowers, five small white caskets containing the remains of the youngest victims rested on those of their parents. On them lay mementos of lives cut short: a teddy bear, a boy’s toy motorcycle, a baby’s powder blue T-shirt with a Tweetie Bird design.
Many who gathered at the special Mass on a military ground in the medieval town of L’Aquila were on crutches or had bruises, bandages and other signs of injury. Some wore jogging bottoms or tracksuits – the only clothing they had managed to find since fleeing their homes.
Firefighters, rangers and other rescue workers stood solemnly, their hands clasped in front of them. At least 10 mourners fainted during the ceremony, according to a doctor at the scene.
As survivors said their final goodbyes, a sense of outrage mingled with the grief.
“There is a lot of anger,” said Daniele Cerrone, 32, who owned two now-destroyed pubs which catered to students in the university town. “Anger because it is unfair. Anger because it is not normal. Anger because there is no future.”
In a message read by his secretary, Monsignor Georg Gaenswein, the Pope told people in the quake-stricken central Abruzzo region that “this is the time to work together”.
“Only solidarity will allow us to overcome this painful trial,” he said Benedict, noting that the quake was felt at the Vatican, 60 miles (100km) to the south-west.
The Pope has promised to travel to the region sometime after Easter. Popes traditionally hold off on visiting crisis zones to avoid disrupting rescue and recovery efforts. After a September 1997 quake killed 10 people in the Umbria region, the late Pope John Paul II waited until January 1998 to visit.
Benedict donated the chalice and vestments used by L’Aquila’s archbishop in the funeral and gave money to cover urgent necessities for the survivors, the Italian new agency Ansa quoted the L’Aquila archdiocese as announcing, without saying how much money.
The pontiff also is sending chocolate Easter eggs to the children living with their families in the tent cities. His secretary, Monsignor Gaenswein, in a sign of his closeness and friendship, gave his wristwatch to the archbishop, Ansa said.
The Vatican’s secretary of state, Cardinal Tarcisio Bertone, presided over the funeral for about 200 of the dead. Some of the 289 victims had already been buried privately. Two bodies were found in the rubble as officials prepared for the ceremony.
Looking ahead to Easter Sunday celebrations, Cardinal Bertone told the mourners: “It will be your Easter, an Easter which will be born once again from the rubble of a people who have suffered so many times in its history.”
An imam briefly took the stage to address the relatives of an unknown number of Muslim victims. He also offered encouragement to all the mourners, who quietly applauded when he finished speaking.
Relatives in the front row bowed their heads, their shoulders shaking as they sobbed. A few ran their fingers over the coffins, each graced with either a cross or a crucifix, a bouquet of flowers and a golden plaque with the name of the deceased and the dates of birth and death.
After the service ended, uniformed police officers and rescue workers, some in bright orange uniforms, slowly carried the caskets away and loaded them into silver-coloured hearses. Soldiers in camouflage gear and black berets saluted each hearse as it left.
Many of the coffins were brought to a cement building inside L’Aquila’s main cemetery and temporarily placed in burial niches. They were expected to remain there for about a month, pending registration of the dead and because the ground is still unstable, police and Red Cross officials said.
Mr Berlusconi and other government officials were among the 10,000 people at the funeral, which was held outdoors because none of the region’s churches was stable enough for the ceremony. He shook hands and gave hugs.
Today was declared a national day of mourning and many shops across the country were closed during the service.
The Vatican had granted a special dispensation for the Mass. Good Friday, which marks Jesus’s death by crucifixion, is the only day in the year on which Mass is not normally celebrated in the Roman Catholic Church.
The quake struck at 3.32am on Monday, while many slept. It reduced entire blocks to piles of rubble. Although L’Aquila was among the hardest hit, the quake damaged some 26 towns across Abruzzo.
Aftershocks, including some strong ones, continued to rattle residents – more than 24,000 of whom are living in tent camps around the stricken region. An additional 15,000 have been put up in seaside hotels, out of the quake zone, and the Italian railway provided heated sleeping cars at L’Aquila’s main station, where nearly 700 people spent the night.
Although there were no reports of widespread looting, Mr Berlusconi announced today that authorities had arrested four Romanian citizens suspected of stealing items from homes. He said officials were trying to organise a trial at L’Aquila’s military barracks.
L’Aquila was taking halting steps towards returning to normal as some shopkeepers reopened for business and firefighters began entering buildings to grab essential items for the homeless.
But locals such as Isabella Pasqua, 37, whose husband lost relatives in the quake, acknowledged it will take a long time to recover.
“We are left with a sense of emptiness,” she said. “It’s a nightmare. I don’t know when we’ll wake up from it.”