Thousands of Bodies Remain Unidentified after Sichuan Earthquake

June 23, 2008 Updated: June 23, 2008

It has been over a month since a massive earthquake shook Sichuan province in China and claimed tens of thousands of lives. The total number of people who lost their lives in the quake, as estimated by the Sichuan Public Security Bureau, continues to rise.

Adding to their sorrow after the tragedy, is the process families go through in identifying a loved one's body, which in a disaster such as an earthquake is not a simple matter.

Regulations in Sichuan have funeral homes publicizing notifications of unclaimed bodies. If a body stays unclaimed for 24 hours, it is cremated and the ashes are kept.

Prior to the cremations, in a process of forensic identification, three photos are taken of each body. One is of the face, one is of the whole body, and the other one is of a remaining personal identifier (such as a mole or deformity) or a personal belonging. Nine sets of pictures are printed out and posted in different funeral homes in hopes that relatives can identify them.

Besides keeping victims' photos, authorities are constructing several DNA databases, so future genetic comparisons can be made by relatives.

In Dujiangyan city, the registration of first lineal relatives' DNA sample has initiated. Unfortunately, due to the technical difficulty involved, together with an enormous work load, even the most advanced DNA matching processes available will likely still leave the remains of thousands of victims unidentified.