China’s Rush to Dispose of Dead Compounds Agony
BEICHUAN, China — The 30 bodies in plastic bags lay strewn outside the tea factory at the foot of the forensic scientist, flies buzzing all around. From some he had collected molars, and from others cartilage. He had worked quickly, 20 minutes per body.
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Soldiers and rescue workers were rushing to unload the earthquake victims into a mass burial pit, where the dirt was still loose and sprinkled with white lime powder.
“The bodies are often in bad condition and decaying; yesterday it rained, and today it’s very sunny,” the scientist, Liang Weibo, said through a surgical mask. “This makes identifying them difficult.”
They are unknown people being quickly cremated or buried in unmarked graves, and there are thousands or tens of thousands of them across quake-ravaged Sichuan Province. It may be months or years before family members discover their fate, if they ever do. They are very likely to be among the nearly 25,000 people the Chinese government classifies as missing in the aftermath of the May 12 earthquake.
President Hu Jintao and Prime Minister Wen Jiabao have urged rescue workers to save lives “at any cost.” But the scale of the disaster has forced the government to dispose of the dead with little ceremony, closing the door on any opportunity family members have of identifying their kin by sight and upsetting the traditional Chinese reverence for the deceased.
More than 60,000 people have died in China’s greatest natural disaster in three decades, Prime Minister Wen Jiabao told The A.P. Officials ordered any bodies found to be burned or buried in mass graves starting May 16, citing the corpses’ state of decay and the threat of epidemics, even though many international health experts say dead bodies do not spread disease.
For many of the dead, no trace remains except photos and names printed on thousands of posters put up by searching family members, like the forests of fliers that sprang up in New York after the Sept. 11 terrorist attack.
In this mountainous corner of China, where customs run deep, Chinese of the majority Han ethnicity insist on cremating family members to ensure a smooth passage to the afterlife. Those from the Qiang ethnic group, who are numerous here, want to bury their dead.
But processing the dead on an assembly line renders those choices moot. “We can’t even see the bodies, much less perform the funeral rites,” said Bian Kaizhen, 63, a patient at Shifang People’s Hospital who is from the village of Sanjiang, where virtually every building collapsed. “There’s a Chinese saying: ‘If he’s alive, I want to see him; if he’s missing, I want to see his body.’ ”
As of Tuesday, 80 percent of corpses in Sichuan Province had been buried or cremated, said Jiang Li, vice minister of civil affairs, at a news conference in Beijing, according to state news media. The family of each victim will be paid $725, she added.
Though thousands of people probably remain buried in Beichuan, one of the hardest-hit towns, workers began razing parts of it on Friday, using heavy machinery to knock down buildings.
Medical experts say it is virtually impossible for anyone buried in rubble to be alive after so much time. But calling off the search means that those still classified as missing could remain that way, lost beneath the rubble. They could also be lying in a mass grave or, just maybe, they could be among the five million homeless refugees.
Their eyes gaze out from photos on homemade posters plastered across the province.
At a stadium used as a refugee center in the city of Mianyang, the wall of fliers includes one from Wang Yan. Her 7-year-old daughter was in a school that collapsed in Beichuan. The search for her daughter, an only child, had already taken Ms. Wang to every hospital and refugee center in Mianyang.
“In the beginning, I had hope, but yesterday I saw on the TV that time had run out for people to survive,” said Ms. Wang, 31, eyes brimming with tears as she held up a photo of her daughter in an orange leotard and tights. “Yesterday, I became desperate. I don’t know how to keep looking.
“I hope that God will give my daughter a chance to survive,” she added. “I can lose anything except for my daughter.”
The posters here are even more chilling than those put up after Sept. 11 because many show that several members of the same family are missing. One flier outside Mianyang Central Hospital of a family surnamed Huang has black-and-white photos of a mother, 33; a son, 6; and a daughter, 9. All three are grinning and holding doves while bundled in winter jackets.
Government workers and volunteers have fanned out to hospitals and refugee centers to compile lists of survivors for databases that will help people find those who made it out alive.
Much harder, though, is tracking the dead.
“There’s a big problem when it comes to searching for the missing or the dead,” Jin Yongjie, a Mianyang city government worker, said as he sat at a table outside city hall typing refugee names into a laptop. “There are no records for this in our database.”
Forensic scientists say the most efficient way to identify a body is to have a family member or friend do so by sight. But more than two-thirds of the quake victims suffered head injuries, often disfiguring them, and after three days, corpses decompose to a point where it can be difficult for even close family members to identify them, said Prof. Li Yingbi, a forensic scientist at Sichuan University who led a forensics team in Beichuan for two days.
The bodies that Dr. Liang, a member of the team, was recently examining outside the tea factory were bloated and blackened. Some were missing large chunks of flesh. The heads of many victims in Beichuan had been sheared off.
In the first three days after the quake, bodies from Beichuan were sent down to Anxian County, where survivors could identify them and collect them for burial, Professor Li said. Bodies found afterward were badly decomposed and were considered to pose a threat of disease or water contamination, he said, so the government ordered them quickly buried or cremated after forensic samples were taken.
The samples are the key to identifying the bodies, because dental records are generally not kept in China. The police are in charge of the process and will use the samples to create a database to match DNA from the dead with those of living family members, Professor Li said. The database will take months to create.
It will also be incomplete; many corpses are buried too deep to dig out, especially now that the razing of towns like Beichuan has begun.
Earlier, the police set up three outdoor spots in the town where forensics teams could collect samples.
One of them was the tea factory where Dr. Liang was working on Sunday. He photographed each corpse. From two-thirds of the bodies, he collected cartilage by the ribs, and from the other third he collected two molars each. Skin samples were out of the question; the bodies were too rotten.
He is resigned to the fact that not all bodies will be recovered. “It’s too difficult to get to the bodies,” he said. “A rescue team with 10 people and sufficient equipment will take four hours to dig out one body.”
Professor Li said his eight team members had worked among police crews that took samples from about 600 bodies in two days. Of those, only four were identified by family members who had lingered around Beichuan. Work had slowed considerably by Monday evening; only 10 bodies were found then, he said.
Very few of the bodies had identification cards or cellphones on them, both useful for identifying a victim, Professor Li said. Even then, a DNA sample still has to be taken because the victim may have been carrying someone else’s ID card or phone.
Professor Li estimated that it would take three months for four labs working 24 hours a day to create a DNA database from all the bodies found in the earthquake zone. The next step will be to collect saliva samples from people searching for their relatives to match DNA.
Still, some bodies will remain unidentified because all their family members have been killed, so there is no survivor with whom to do genetic matching.
There is some question as to whether samples are being collected from all the bodies found. An official at the Mianyang Earthquake Rescue and Relief Center said by telephone that too many people had died, so some had been buried even though no photos or samples had been taken. He was initially unsure whom he was talking to, and when reminded that it was a reporter, he said to call the Propaganda Department.
In any case, as time passes, survivors could very well accept the fact they may never identify or properly bury their loved ones.
It is a crucial part of the healing process, said Mei Ting, a psychologist working with refugees in Mianyang.
“Many local people were staying in Beichuan and were reluctant to leave because their family members died there,” she said. “Some continued to stay there because they hadn’t found their missing relatives. But they had to face reality. We have this saying: ‘The dead should give way to the living.’ ”