The hearses bearing black and yellow funeral paper flowers crept in a steady stream toward the Dongjiao crematory in eastern Beijing. Several dozen people crowded around the closed gate waiting to be let in. A man unable to get a spot in line could only watch, wondering what to do with the body of a relative who had just died of COVID-19.

The hospital could not keep the body — there were already too many in its morgue. When he called the crematory, an employee told him he had to wait a week. When he called again, nobody answered.

A country trying to mourn its dead from an explosive COVID-19 outbreak is grappling with a system unprepared for the surge in fatalities. Two weeks after China abruptly abandoned its "zero-COVID” policy, cases have soared in cities like Beijing, along with reports of people dying.