PARIS – Gravediggers were called back to work on a national holiday Friday to deal with the grim aftermath of a heat wave that left up to 3,000 people dead in France.
With morgues full, authorities took over the vast storeroom of a Paris farmers' market or kept bodies in refrigerated tents — as temperatures subsided throughout Europe, ending one of the most severe periods of intense heat on record across the continent.
Morgues and cemeteries have been overwhelmed in the heat wave, which the health minister called "a true epidemic." One official said families would likely have to wait 10-15 days to have relatives buried.
"We're explaining the situation to families," said Hugues Fauconnet of General Funeral Services, the country's largest undertaker. "Our most important mission is to preserve the dignity of the deceased."
Funeral officials claimed the 43,000 square-foot refrigerated storage area of the Paris area's wholesale market in the suburb of Rungis. They planned to place bodies on army cots.
Complicating matters for burials: Many priests were away on summer vacation in predominantly Roman Catholic France, which all but shuts down during August.
Doctors have said many victims, who were generally elderly, died of dehydration heat stroke in the punishing heat wave that has gripped Europe, where many homes and offices lack air conditioning.
Throughout Europe, temperatures settled back to normal Friday. At times, the mercury had hovered around 100 degrees, fanning forest fires and devastating livestock and crops.
Thunderstorms cooled Switzerland on Friday, while in the Netherlands, temperatures were down to 68 degrees. The heat eased in Germany, though officials were still on watch for fires.
France's political climate still simmered with accusations the government didn't do enough to prevent the crisis.
Despite warnings from emergency room doctors, Prime Minister Jean-Pierre Raffarin waited until Wednesday to order Paris hospitals to prepare more beds and call health care workers back from vacation.
If the government had acted sooner, "many lives could have been saved," Patrick Pelloux, head of the association for French emergency hospital physicians, told Le Parisien newspaper.
Former Health Minister Claude Evin, a Socialist, also accused the center-right government for waiting too long.
Health Minister Jean-Francois Mattei toured a hospital Friday in the suburb of Longjumeau that set up a refrigerated tent to store bodies.
"We're on maximum alert," said Mattei, who has denied allegations of foot-dragging. "The crisis is not over."
Friday was a Roman Catholic holiday, the feast of the Assumption, and most of France had a long weekend. The Paris mayor's office authorized cemetery personnel to stay on the job.
If the preliminary French figures of up to 3,000 deaths holds, the death toll would be among the highest in recent years, officials at the World Health Organization in Geneva said.
About 2,600 heat-related deaths were recorded in India five years ago, and roughly 500 people died from heat-related causes in 1995 in Chicago, according to WHO experts.
No other European countries reported deaths anywhere near the scale of those in France. Spain, for example, has recorded 42. Germany and Italy haven't issued figures on heat-related deaths, saying such figures are difficult to come by because heat may be just one factor contributing to a person's death.