Grave situation: Don't landfill the Tsunami bodies


In the calculus of human misery it is impossible to grasp the cost of the tsunami that hit Southern Asia. At some point our ability to respond emotionally is overwhelmed by the numbers of dead. The television news coverage with its wrecked resort areas, boats pushed inland, and rows of bodies fails utterly to convey the weight of grief that these pictures represent.

Here, we are told, is a man who has lost his wife, there a mother who can find only one of her eight children. The faces we see are black or brown, except for those who are interviewed about their good luck in airports as they return home. They speak our language; it makes for better television.

Relief efforts are underway. The wealthiest countries, says a UN official, have been stingy so far in their response. President Bush takes umbrage; he describes us as a "generous, kindhearted nation" and pledges, under pressure, $350 million dollars in aid to relief efforts that are going to require billions.

Meanwhile, the nameless dead are being gathered in great piles to be carted to mass graves. There is, apparently, a sense of urgency about getting rid of these bodies out of all proportion to the health risks that they pose. Imagine if your father or wife or child was missing, and as you searched for them, you heard that corpses were being collected, loaded on dump trucks and consigned– without ceremony or identification– to huge pits in the earth.

To have a body to bury with a service of farewell is a minimum requirement for human beings to begin a process of grief that allows us to move on with our lives after losing all that made living worthwhile. America still has recovery teams sifting through crash sites in Vietnam to recover bone fragments that can be identified and returned to families of soldiers dead more than 35 years. Relatives of missing murder victims seem like restless spirits engaged in a never-ending search for the remains of their loved ones.

People who are bereaved hate the word "closure"– that state beloved by the media that implies that we have accepted our loss and moved on. Parents of dead children are especially revolted by the idea that one can ever accept such an irredeemable loss. The process of mourning requires that we keep fresh the memories of our child. Commonly this effort is played out in graveyards where birthday flowers are renewed and our footprints in the snow mirror the footprints in our hearts.

The need for identification is an affirmation of our individual and collective humanity. Mass graves are the mark of the concentration camp and the murderous tyrant. The dangers posed by bodies unburied for a few days are much less than the emotional consequences of never knowing what has happened to loved ones and having no place to engage in the rituals of grief.

In an eerie reprise of the man-made tsunami of 9/11, there are pictures of the missing being posted on walls in Sri Lanka and Thailand and Indonesia. In some places, people crowd around bulletin boards filled with Polaroid photos of the dead, searching for the face of a relative.

Grief in the end is individual. We cannot comprehend hundreds of thousands of broken hearts. Every one of them is entitled to heal as best it can, but it is incumbent on those in authority to provide an environment that will promote that healing. This requires that no one be buried as if they were rubbish.

While we are sending the food and water that will enable the survivors to live, we need also to somehow try to moderate the panicked and heartless disposal of the dead so that the humanity of each is preserved and so that each family can begin the process of absorbing their unimaginable losses and rebuilding their lives.

Gordon Livingston is a West Point graduate who served as an Army doctor in Vietnam. He became an antiwar activist, and is now a psychiatrist in Columbia, Maryland. This essay is distributed through the Featurewell service.