By John Revill
ZURICH, January 21 (Reuters) - Switzerland's biggest crematorium is bracing itself for a renewed spike in coronavirus deaths as new variants of the virus drive up infection rates around the country, while striving to maintain the conditions for saying peaceful goodbyes.
Crematorium Nordheim in Zurich processed 860 bodies in December, 45% more than normal, and was forced to extend its daily operating hours and conduct cremations on Saturdays as the virus took its toll, particularly on the elderly.
Across Switzerland the number of infections has surpassed 500,000 out of a population of 8.6 million, causing nearly 8,200 deaths.
"We were stretched to our limit," said Rolf Steinmann, head of the funeral and cemetery office in Zurich. "Not just because of the number of deaths, but also because the uncertainty took its toll.
"We never knew when there would be a break in the numbers or if they would continue to rise," he told Reuters.
A crematorium in nearby Winterthur helped prevent the bodies overwhelming the Zurich facilities. The physical and psychological burden on the crematorium's seven staff increased.
So far this month the crematorium has processed 500 bodies.
"I hope the numbers won't be like they were at the end of last year, but who knows," Steinmann said.
"Hopefully the stronger lockdown measures and the arrival of the vaccine will help."
In Zurich, where around 90% of the dead are cremated, a steady stream of vans brings bodies from care homes, hospitals and private addresses. Coffins are stored in the crematorium's three cold rooms and placed in one of 30 visiting rooms where relatives bid their final farewells.
Afterwards the ashes are put in urns, many of which carry the city's crest, and sent to cemeteries or given to relatives.
"It is important for family members to have their chance to say good-bye," said Steinmann, 58, who has been in charge of the service for nine years.
"It can be more peaceful and less traumatic, especially if the last time they saw the person they were in intensive care. It helps with the grieving process."
"We know that life ends, but this job makes me humble and appreciative for what I have in life," he added.
(Reporting by John Revill; Editing by Alexandra Hudson)