By Marine Strauss and Yves Herman
Chapelle-lez-Herlaimont, Belgium (Reuters) - In a small town south of Brussels, funeral director Stephane Geeurickx says almost all the dead he has buried in the last weeks died of COVID-19, which was not the case when the pandemic first took hold.
Belgium, a country of 11 million, is in the grip of the second wave of the virus and has one of the world's highest COVID-19 mortality rates. It has also seen one of Europe's sharpest jumps in cases this autumn.
"In March-April, we noticed a number of deaths higher than normal but they were not necessarily directly linked to COVID-19," Geeurickx, who owns Centre funéraire S.O.S Décès, told Reuters.
But now almost all the funerals he organises are for those who contracted the virus.
Belgium's COVID-19 death toll stands at 13,216, according to data from the Sciensano health institute.
Standing in front of brown and white wooden coffins, Geeurickx said none of the eight employees of the funeral home founded by his parents in the 1980s, had asked to stop working during the pandemic or had become infected.
"We had no cases of contamination and there were no big specific fears even regarding the handling of COVID-19 deceased," Geeurickx said.
He said the funeral home applies full protective measures when handling the bodies of COVID victims. However, when conducting funerals, they are sensitive to relatives' needs and do allow families to hug and be close to each other.
Belgium has imposed social restrictions and closed non-essential shops and services until Dec 1 to try and curb the spread of the virus.
(Reporting by Yves Herman and Marine Strauss, Editing by Alexandra Hudson)