Human Face

Questions on the buried cadavers

/ 01:08 AM January 09, 2014

Two months after Supertyphoon “Yolanda” struck, the hundreds of remaining unburied and unidentified cadavers are being rebagged and buried in mass graves after DNA samples and other identity marks have been taken. There remain many questions and criticisms on why it took so long for the bodies to be buried, and why survivors had to live with the stench of the decaying corpses for two months.

Assurances from health officials that corpses do not pose threats to health were not that reassuring, what with intermittent rains adding to the landscape’s somber look of decay. The smell of one decaying dead rat is bad enough, what more hundreds (it used to be thousands) of dead human beings? The survivors, traumatized enough, had to live with this.


The good news is that government agencies are trying to drive the last nails into the coffins, so to speak, though there are no coffins to speak of, only body bags that cannot seal in the smell of putrefaction.

The DNA sampling and recording for purposes of identifying the remains in the future have not been described in detail, leaving me and many others wondering how the task of exhumation would proceed in a way satisfactory to the dead’s next of kin. That is, for their missing family members to be finally found beneath the mound and identified with precision.


Or is this all an exercise in futility, a way to make the bereaved feel a little better, a way to meet cultural expectations? That is, that the living  will eventually get reunited with their loved ones’ remains so that they can give these proper burial in a place of their own choosing. This, even in the age of cremation when many who are still living are choosing not to be buried (when they’re dead, that is) but to have their ashes scattered  to the four winds or merged with the ocean. Not to be kept in urns or cubicles but to be released to the cosmos.

Question: What can survivors in search of missing kin expect in the future? Will they be able to find the remains of their loved ones who are in the mass graves (if they are in the mass graves) and be told with absolute certainty that the remains in a particular body bag are what they are looking for?

Are the body bags and their identification numbers impervious to rot, and how do these correspond to the DNA samples on the list? Were photos and thumbprints taken before the bodies decomposed?

The severity of the havoc wreaked by Yolanda was beyond compare that procedures conducted with swiftness, orderliness and precision in the immediate aftermath could not be expected. But now, late in the day, could something still be expected (in the future) in the identification department?

I’ve seen too many “CSI NY” and “CSI Miami” episodes on TV that might make me think identification of corpses and criminals through scientific means is so easy. But the Yolanda superepisode was one of a kind and the dead so numerous (6,000 plus) that it would be hard to meet all the survivors’ expectations as far as finding their dead is concerned.

How indeed will the process of exhumation and identification proceed in the future? Will there be a mass exhumation? Will searching relatives have to present their own DNA samples and spend for the exhumation and identification process?

How do you find one body from among thousands buried together (not one on top of another, I suppose) in a mass grave?


According to reports, more than 1,000 bodies were recently buried in a mass grave in Barangay Suhi in Tacloban City, others will be buried at Holy Cross cemetery, and some 800 more are being processed.

I salute the forensic teams of the National Bureau of Investigation and the gravediggers who have been at this for weeks. Health Secretary Enrique Ona and Undersecretary Janet Garin have gone to see the processing of the dead for themselves.

But I really want to know the science part of this. I dread the day when relatives will demand an exhumation, identification and matching process, and the government cannot deliver. How exactly will this be done? Too early to ask?

But shouldn’t families with missing kin instead be prepared to accept that their loved ones, together with thousands of others, have been buried properly and need not be raked up once more, to let the dear departed lie peacefully in hollowed grounds where the living and generations to come can honor them collectively?

Swept to the sea or buried as unknowns, the dead do not care. It is the living  who need to come to terms with the suddenness and fierceness of it all, with the reality that life as they knew it will not be the same again, but that life must go on. For as the psalmist said, “Joy comes in the morning.”

* * *

Goodbye to Sr. Flor Maria Basa of the Franciscan Missionaries of Mary (FMM) who passed away last Monday at 92. I did a front-page piece on her yesterday.

I wrote a series on her in 2012, at the height of the impeachment trial of Chief Justice Renato Corona. This nun, who had quietly lived her religious vocation for more than 60 years, came out with guns blazing, so to speak, to shoot down what she believed was not the truth. She spoke truth to power.

Though never summoned to the witness stand, her statements corroborated other findings of the impeachment court that eventually found Corona guilty.

She will be laid to rest tomorrow at the FMM burial grounds in Tagaytay, in that resting place on the grassy ridge with the splendorous view of Taal lake and volcano, in that hallowed place where mist turns to dew.

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TAGS: cadavers, column, dead, Ma. Ceres P. Doyo, typhoon `Yolanda
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