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Turkey buries its earthquake dead in small cemeteries and mass graves

A funeral ceremony is performed at a mass grave site in Kahramanmaras, Turkey, where thousands of bodies from the earthquake are already buried and more graves are still being dug.
Claire Harbage
/
NPR
A funeral ceremony is performed at a mass grave site in Kahramanmaras, Turkey, where thousands of bodies from the earthquake are already buried and more graves are still being dug.

PAZARCIK, Turkey — With so many people killed suddenly in last week's earthquake, Turkey faces a huge logistical challenge of burying tens of thousands of people over a span of just a few days.

Ali Gul has lost five family members to the Feb. 6 earthquake. He's buried two of them in the southeastern town of Pazarcik. Three more are presumed dead in the rubble of their collapsed apartment buildings.

Rescue teams have told him they're close to extracting his uncle's body from a debris pile in the nearby city of Kahramanmaras.

Gul and his brother Fatih are at the cemetery in Pazarcik to prepare a spot for their uncle's body after it finally is freed from the rubble. Ali wants his uncle's grave to be ready.

"We are originally from here, so we want to bring our dead back here," Ali says.

The brothers have hired three workers from the cemetery to prepare the plot. The gravediggers tell them the normal price for the work, but quickly assure them, "If you don't have any money, we'll dig it for free."

The spot is just outside the wall of the cemetery, next to other fresh mounds of earth marked with rough-hewn wooden planks. Names, birth dates and the death date "02.06.23" are inscribed on the planks.

The 7.8 magnitude earthquake has killed more than 37,000 in Turkey and Syria. Nearly 500 funerals have already been held in Pazarcik, according to a cemetery official. Due to a lack of space, many were buried in a freshly plowed field next to this cemetery.

Fatih is employed with the local municipal government. He says it's been a lot of work, but everyone will eventually be properly laid to rest. The town set up a special area in a municipal garage where Islamic corpse washers ritually cleaned the bodies.

Farmers from outlying rural areas, he says, packed their dead loved ones into open wagons, covered them with snow and then pulled them into town with a tractor to be cleansed and blessed.

"Pazarcik has a population of 7,000," Fatih says. No one is being buried here as unidentified, he says: "We know everyone. Our family ties are too strong."

Ali and Fatih watch the gravediggers methodically prepare their uncle's grave with shovels and a pickax. There's a calmness at the cemetery in Pazarcik.

That's not the case elsewhere in Turkey.

Thirty miles west of Pazarcik, in Kahramanmaras, a city of more than a million people, the air is thick with wood smoke and dust from backhoes digging through the rubble of collapsed buildings.

Bodies are moved to a mass grave site in Kahramanmaras, Turkey, where they are washed and buried.
Claire Harbage / NPR
/
NPR
Bodies are moved to a mass grave site in Kahramanmaras, Turkey, where they are washed and buried.

The main soccer stadium is full of white tents providing temporary shelters for hundreds of people who lost their homes. Right next to the stadium, officials have set up a morgue inside a gymnasium. The parking lot holds a soup kitchen.

Fritz Mertens is with a team of German undertakers called Deathcare who are volunteering at the morgue. When vehicles arrive at the gate, he directs them to the right if they want to get food and to the left if they want to drop off dead bodies.

The volunteers from Mertens' organization clean and disinfect the bodies.

"If the body bag is damaged, we get a new one," he says.

A doctor on site tries to officially verify the identity of the corpse and cause of death, if possible. Mertens says more than 1,000 bodies came through this makeshift morgue over the course of just a few days. They keep coming.

Most of the bodies from in and around Kahramanmaras are sent to a new mass grave on the outskirts of the city.
Claire Harbage / NPR
/
NPR
Most of the bodies from in and around Kahramanmaras are sent to a new mass grave on the outskirts of the city.

From the gymnasium in Kahramanmaras, relatives of the deceased can collect the corpses. But with thousands dead in this city alone, most families have nowhere to take them. All of the cemeteries are full. So most of the bodies are sent to a new mass grave on the outskirts of the city.

The mass grave extends up a rocky hillside. It looks out over a green valley with snow-capped mountains on the far side. The temperature is just above freezing.

A steady stream of corpses keeps arriving in ambulances, trucks and even private cars. A woman sits on the ground caressing a full black body bag.

Each body is at first inspected and photographed by police officers. Then the corpse is zipped back into its bag and sent to be ritually washed according to Islamic custom.

At the top of the hill, there are 19 tents for body washing.

A group of female body washers takes a break and huddle around a small fire to warm up. They wear long blue surgical smocks over puffy winter jackets.

One of them, Mevlude Guney, says the women working here have come from all over Turkey to help. Guney is from the city of Erzurum, about a 10-hour drive from Kahramanmaras.

At home, she's a teacher. "My mother was a gassal," she says, the word used in Turkey for an Islamic corpse washer. Her mother taught her the proper way under Islam to prepare a body for burial.

But she's never been involved in caring for bodies from a disaster like this one. At her tent alone, the women say they wash 70 bodies a day. This work, they say, is their responsibility and duty as Muslims.

At some other graveyards in Turkey, workers say that in a disaster like this one, the gassal can do an abbreviated version of the washing and it's even permitted to skip the cleaning entirely.

Grief-stricken mourners visit the cemetery. Some funerals have a few family members while others have dozens of relatives in attendance.
Claire Harbage / NPR
/
NPR
Grief-stricken mourners visit the cemetery. Some funerals have a few family members while others have dozens of relatives in attendance.

Just outside Guney's tent, thousands of fresh graves extend down the hillside. The graveyard is so vast that an older woman frets that she'll never find her loved one's grave again. Other people tie pieces of string and scarves to the generic wooden planks.

Multiple funerals are happening at once and the process of burying the dead is constant.

Backhoes claw trenches into the ground. Men lower the black body bags one by one. At some burials, there are a handful of relatives who watch and pray. At others, dozens.

For the unidentified, soldiers and police are called to stand at the graveside.

As soon as one body is covered with dirt, another arrives.

Samantha Balaban and Tuğba Öcek contributed to this story.

Copyright 2023 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Jason Beaubien is NPR's Global Health and Development Correspondent on the Science Desk.