The landslide happened in Camogli, a picturesque resort community near Genoa on the Ligurian Sea. The cliffs around the town cemetery gave way on Monday, dropping many of the buried coffins into the water below.
Two chapels also collapsed into the sea, as video from inside the cemetery shows.
Mayor Francesco Olivari described the collapse as an “unimaginable catastrophe,” and operations are now underway to recover the many bodies involved.
Crews immediately saved 10 coffins but the remaining recovery operation could take days, according to Giacomo Giampedrone, the regional assessor of civil protection.
His crews were performing maintenance along the sheer coastline over the weekend but they stopped their work due to falling rocks.
“It was close to the area that fell,” Giampedrone told CNN. “Some signs of fissures we seen. We decided to close the cemetery.”
“The area had also been cordoned off because in the last few days there had been strange creaking sounds,” city councillor Tino Revello told the Ansa news agency in Italy.
Giampedrone says the recovery effort will be at the mercy of the sea.
The cemetery had been in place for over 100 years, local officials say. The coffins were stacked and built into the walls of the cemetery, and they fell when those walls fell.
“It was the only place where I could go see my parents and talk to them,” local resident Clara Terrile, 66, told the New York Times. “Now I am left with nothing.”
Many of the coffins remain stuck under the rubble from the collapse, but scuba divers have also been working to recover coffins that fell beneath the waves.
The waters around the town have been blocked off so the coffins will not be carried out to sea.
“This event hit the community hard emotionally,” Olivari said.
“The whole Liguria is characterized by these phenomena,” he added. “It was hard to foresee it.”