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'Funeral cards' helped an old Italian through lockdown, before his own was made

ROME (Reuters) - Each time he went to a funeral, Gino Verani came away with a “santino,” the traditional laminated card with a picture of the deceased on the front and a prayer on the back.

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Over the years he would slip them into two small cardboard boxes in a drawer in the living room of his house in San Fiorano - a town in northern Italy that was at the epicenter of the country’s coronavirus pandemic - along with his watch, an outdated cellphone and his keys.

By the time Verani died on Sept. 6 at the age of 88, he had collected nearly 150 “santini,” so-called because they are similar to cards bearing images of Roman Catholic saints.

Those cards depicting friends, and sometimes children of friends, became part of the many games his family devised to keep Verani’s mind active against encroaching dementia during the national lockdown.

“I would occasionally lay them all out on a table and ask him to identify the pictures,” said his grandson Marzio Toniolo, 35, an elementary school teacher in the same town.

“He remembered many of them, more than he remembered what he did a while ago,” he said.

At one point during the three-month lockdown from March to May, four generations of the Verani-Toniolo family were living under the same roof, ranging from Toniolo’s three-year-old daughter Bianca to Verani, her great-grandfather.

Games were necessary because only short walks were permitted within 200 meters (yards) of the house.

Wearing a mask and wool hat, Verani would often stop to stare listlessly at a bulletin board where death notices were posted, a tradition that continues in Italy’s smaller cities and towns.

“After all of the restrictions were lifted (on June 3), he felt totally liberated. His mood improved and his body showed it for a while too,” Toniolo said.

But during the summer Verani fell twice. He no longer could manage the stairs so the family, including his wife Ines, 85, Toniolo’s wife Chiara, 32, and his mother, set up an area on the ground floor where Verani could sleep in a single bed.

He had slept beside Ines their entire married life of 63 years. He was restless in the single bed. When he did sleep, it was badly. When family members cleaned him, he complained of pain.

The family decided to move Verani to a care home in a nearby town so professionals could look after him, and Ines reluctantly agreed. Because of a two-week quarantine rule, they realised they might not see him alive again.

“From that moment, my grandmother closed up inside herself, oppressed by feelings of guilt because, as she put it, ‘we sent him off to die far from home’,” Toniolo said.

Verani died a week later of natural causes and his body was brought home. He was dressed in his best suit and put in a coffin flanked by two large candles for a 24-hour wake in the living room, a tradition in a country where funeral homes are not commonly used.

Almost the whole town turned out to see him. Each person received a “santino” with Verani’s picture on it. Toniolo added one to the boxes in the living room drawer, retiring his grandfather’s collection forever.

Reporting By Philip Pullella; Editing by Mike Collett-White