JAKARTA: At one of Jakarta’s largest public cemeteries last month, Tuti Kursiani’s family members wept as her coffin was lowered into the ground, less than 24 hours after the 65-year-old died of the novel coronavirus.

As the mourners recited Islamic prayers, around them lay bulldozed dirt berms and hundreds of makeshift gravesites — simple wooden Muslim headstones filling some plots, Christian crosses in another — smack up against the property’s boundaries.

“She was never married and had no children. We were her family,” said Indah, Kursiani’s 45-year-old niece, who like many Indonesians goes by one name.

Yet the family was somewhat fortunate to secure a burial plot. With the virus ravaging Indonesia, the densely populated capital is running out of space to bury the dead.

On Oct. 20, the morning of Kursiani’s funeral at Pondok Ranggon cemetery, three ambulances carrying coffins waited to unload the latest victims into graves dug just inches apart. Nearby, cemetery workers dug grave after grave in anticipation of more ambulances and grieving family members arriving throughout the day.

The cemetery hosts about 25 funerals a day for coronavirus victims and has been expanded 14 times since April, according to cemetery workers who spoke on the condition of anonymity because they weren’t authorized to comment publicly.

Jakarta has 73 cemeteries with more than 815,000 gravesites, but they have almost reached capacity because of the pandemic, which has caused the city’s average monthly death toll to nearly double, said Suzi Marsitawati, head of the Jakarta Parks and Cemeteries Department.

Gravediggers work during a funeral for victims of the coronavirus Sept. 29 at the Pondok Ranggon cemetery in Jakarta.

The situation has become so dire that the Jakarta government is bulldozing a five-acre site for a cemetery in the north of the city to accommodate the growing number of victims of covid-19, the disease caused by the coronavirus. As of Friday, the city government had reported some 105,000 coronavirus cases and more than 2,200 deaths. Indonesia overall has one of the world’s highest observed case-fatality ratios, according to Johns Hopkins University data.

Marsitawati said the new cemetery, scheduled to open by December, would “also have burial space for non-covid cases, too,” to help ease the strain on existing burial grounds, which are expected to experience a spike in non-coronavirus deaths from the onset of the annual monsoon season in coming weeks.

Indonesia is the world’s most populous Muslim-majority nation, with about 90 percent of its 270 million people observing the faith, but also has smaller but influential religious minorities including Christians, Hindus and Buddhists, and practitioners of centuries-old spiritual beliefs.

Jakarta, which is officially designated as a special province, has the sixth-largest population among Indonesia’s 34 provinces, with just over 10 million residents. But it is by far the smallest geographically at only 257 square miles, giving it the twin problems of many covid-19 patients and the fewest options to bury victims. Adding to the space challenge, Islamic tradition forbids cremation.

“I never heard of that situation anywhere else in Indonesia but here,” said Wiku Adisasmito, spokesman for the national coronavirus task force, referring to the shortage of gravesites.

Jakarta experienced new spikes in coronavirus cases and deaths among its residents that forced the city’s government to reimpose large-scale social restrictions in September, mainly because of a critical shortage of covid-19 hospital beds. Office buildings, restaurants and bars closed, and passenger numbers on public buses and the subway were curtailed.

All public and private schools have shifted to online classes since March, and only essential services including banks, pharmacies, grocery stores, and transportation and logistics companies remained operational until restrictions were eased in mid-October, when restaurants began to reopen.

Authorities have faced criticism for a lack of transparency during the pandemic. President Joko Widodo has admitted that his government initially suppressed reporting of the number of coronavirus cases and deaths to avoid a public panic after the first infections were reported here March 2.

Marsitawati declined to elaborate on the status of the new cemetery except to say that construction was “in progress.” Atika Nur Rahmania, a spokeswoman for the Jakarta provincial government, did not reply to phone calls and text messages requesting information.

Nadi, the Pondok Ranggon cemetery’s management officer, who also goes by one name, told the Jakarta Post in September there was space left for only 1,100 more burials for covid-19 victims, and the facility would near critical capacity within weeks.

After burying her aunt there, Indah said her mother had also contracted the coronavirus and recovered, but that a cousin of hers had also died.

“I’ve lost two relatives to covid-19. I am not sure how many more I can take,” she said.

-The Washington Post