Italy held an emotional day of mourning today for the victims of Monday's earthquake, even as aftershocks continued to roll through the region.
On this day, also the holiday of Good Friday, traditionally the most mournful day in the Christian calendar, the nation had the added burden of contemplating the 289 people who were killed in the wake of Monday's powerful 6.3 magnitude earthquake. Forty-thousand people remain homeless.
At the Financial Guard police barracks in Coppito, near the epicenter town of L'Aquila, 205 coffins were on display for the moving ceremony, laid out in four rows on red carpets in front of a specially-built altar.
Covered in floral wreaths, the simple-looking brown caskets were occasionally dotted with smaller white coffins placed above, indicating a child that had been killed along with a parent in the quake. The youngest victim at today's funeral was only six months old.
As relatives arrived to pay their respects, a silence slowly enveloped the barracks, occasionally broken by muted wails of the grief-stricken. Somber organ music and cannon-fire heralded the start of the ceremony which began with Pope Benedict's personal secretary, Monsignor Georg Gaenswein, reading aloud a personal message from the Pontiff himself.
"The violence of the earthquake, has created singularly difficult situations," Monsignor Gaenswein read out, "I followed the developments of the devastating seismic phenomenon from the first shock of the earthquake, which was also felt in the Vatican, and I noticed with favor the growing wave of solidarity, thanks to which the first rescue operations were organized, followed by an increasingly incisive action both by the state and the ecclesiastic institutions and private people."
"The Holy See intends to do its part, along with the parishes, the religious institutes and the lay groups. This is the time for commitment, in coordination with the State organizations, which are already working in an admirable way. Solidarity is the only thing that can help overcome such painful tests."
5,000 People Attend the Ceremony, 1,600 of Them Relatives
The moving ceremony was attended by around 5,000 people, 1,600 of whom were relatives. The anguish felt by some was occasionally too much to bear. One woman had to be taken away by ambulance.
Dignitaries were kept to the side of the congregation to give more space to relatives and family friends of the deceased. The Italian Prime Minister, Silvio Berlusconi, did not remain in the seat allocated for him. Looking visibly moved, he mingled and shook hands with the relatives and rescue workers and offered his condolences. Speaking earlier on Italian radio, Berlusconi told listeners that he was ''incredibly moved by the stories of those who lost their homes, lost their children. This has been a devastating experience that I will never forget.''
The prime minister also told reporters that many people had offered their homes to help the evacuees. "I, too, will do what I can, offering some of my homes," he added.
As the funeral drew to a close, a prayer was read out by an Islamic Imam, representing the six Muslims who had been killed in the quake, two of whom were Palestinian. Although none of their caskets were present, the Imam, who is also the president of the Union of Islamic Communities, declared that everyone ''shared the sorrow for all the fellow victims of the earthquake that has injured Abruzzo's heart."
On Sunday, top Italian chef Giancarlo Vissani and 200 other chefs will be preparing Easter Sunday lunch at the 27 tent cities erected in the area. Using produce from the l'Aquila province, Vissani intends to prepare the traditional Easter meal with what's available. "We wanted to do something that would bring immediate comfort and in line with our activity as cooks." He told Italy's La Stampa newspaper.
The authorities have decided to extend the search for survivors until Sunday, although there is little hope of encountering anyone alive under the rubble.
The death toll is currently 290 and with 20 people still missing, it is believed it will top 300. As the recovery operations diversify, reconstruction becomes increasingly urgent. Nearly 18,000 survivors of the quake are taking refuge in l'Aquila's tent cities, with more tents being put up every day.
After Prime Minister Berlusconi's visits to area, he described l'Aquila as a "ghost town" and told residents that they would be receiving over $650 million from the European Union to help rebuild their devastated towns.
The Italian government has approved over $130 million for reconstruction and has ordered that local people will be exempt from paying taxes and the self-employed given social security to tide them over. The cost of the damage caused by the earthquake has been estimated at $4 billion.