With So Many Dead in Turkey, Families Forced to Rush Funeral Rites

KAPICAM, Turkey — The mother wept next to the simple wooden slat that marked where her son had been buried in a long, thin mound of dirt that held dozens of others lost in the devastating earthquake that struck southern Turkey.

In an abbreviated form of the usual funeral rites, his body had been cleansed in accordance with Islamic tradition, wrapped in a white shroud and lowered into the earth, giving her a moment of dignity and closure during a week of compounding tragedies.

“My son, my son,” cried the mother, Gullu Kolac.

Around her in the cemetery were many new mounds that disappeared into the distance, holding hundreds of other graves. Nearby, mechanical excavators were digging more.

The 7.8 magnitude earthquake that hit southern Turkey on Monday killed so many people so quickly that it overwhelmed the funeral process, accelerating how families say goodbye.

Gone, for the time being, are the rituals where relatives lovingly wash and shroud the departed’s body, hold a funeral and welcome friends and relatives paying condolences. The new, crisis-driven process aims to honor the dead and quickly bury them, for both custom and public health.

Rescuers searching for people in a collapsed building on Thursday in Kahramanmaras, Turkey.Credit…Emin Ozmen for The New York Times

The tragedy has transformed the cemetery outside the village of Kapicam, near where the earthquake struck in southern Turkey.

In normal times, it would be a serene place: surrounded by forest and shaded by towering pines, with a panorama of snowcapped mountains in the distance. But on Thursday, three days after the earthquake that killed more than 17,500 in Turkey and 3,000 in neighboring Syria, it was packed with grieving families and full of dead bodies, wrapped in blankets or zipped up in body bags.

Most of the bodies arrived in the backs of trucks, ambulances and funeral vehicles after having been pulled from the rubble of buildings destroyed by the quake. They lay on the ground around the site, often in groups of a dozen or more, waiting for relatives to claim them or to receive their final preparations for burial.

Crisscrossing the cemetery was a seemingly endless stream of men carrying body bags from the tents where the bodies were prepared toward the long, narrow trenches where they would be buried.

Deadly Quake in Turkey and Syria

A 7.8-magnitude earthquake on Feb. 6, with its epicenter in Gaziantep, Turkey, has become one of the deadliest natural disasters of the century.

  • A Devastating Event: The quake, one of the deadliest since 2000, rippled through neighboring countries; an area along the Syrian-Turkish border was hit particularly hard.
  • From the Scene: Thousands of people have been killed, and dozens of cities have been gutted. Here is how witnesses described the disaster.
  • A Desperate Search: When buildings fell in Antakya, Turkey, families poured in from all over to help. Videos capture the dig for survivors.
  • Syrian Refugees: Millions of people fled the war in Syria for the safety of neighboring Turkey. Now, those killed in the quake are being returned home.

Adnan Beyhan, a religious official who had traveled from a faraway city to help with the earthquake response, said that the crisis conditions meant that the normal Muslim funeral rites had to be modified.

Many of the bodies that arrived had been damaged by collapsing buildings or had started to decompose, he said, meaning that they could not be undressed and washed with water before being wrapped in shrouds, as was done in normal circumstances.

People searching for relatives in a sporting hall converted to a morgue on Thursday in Kahramanmaras.Credit…Emin Ozmen for The New York Times

So some kept their clothes, and the people who prepared the bodies used an Islamic practice known as “teyemmum” in Turkish, which allows disaster victims to be “washed” by gently stroking them with dirt or stones, he said.

They are then wrapped in white cloth for burial.

Not all families were immediately comfortable with the practice, he said. The day before, a man who had lost a relative asked if it was acceptable in Islam to bury people this way.

“I told him, ‘Of course it’s OK. And they have the status of a martyr,’” he said, which is considered a blessing in Islam.

The man left relieved, he said.

For many, waiting was its own ordeal. In Islam, burials are supposed to happen as soon as possible.

Cengizhan Ceyhan had come to the cemetery for the funeral of his sister, Saziye Ozer, and her daughter Belis, 10, who had died trapped in the rubble of a collapsed building, he said.

“If it were a car accident, you could be with them immediately, wash them immediately,” he said. “But this way, you know they are dead, but you have to wait for days. You still have hope, which is painful. You don’t want to accept that they are dead.”

People mourning relatives found in the makeshift morgue in Kahramanmaras.Credit…Emin Ozmen for The New York Times

For Ms. Kolac, who came to bury her son, the visit to the cemetery had been one way station on a road strewn with tragedies.

Three of her relatives had been buried in rubble: her son, Yakup Bulduk, 22, along with her other son’s wife and their 2-year-old son.

Her husband had managed to find Yakup, whom they buried that day. Since they were still looking for the others, they would take no time to fully mourn or accept condolences.

“We are going back to the rubble to wait for the baby and the wife,” she said.

The funeral process is systematized, if a bit chaotic. Bodies arriving to the cemetery are checked to make sure their deaths have been officially recorded and death certificates issued. While most of the bodies are identified, those that are not are fingerprinted by the police, who sometimes also take blood samples. The information is recorded in a government system with the number of the person’s grave, so that relatives can find it should they come later.

The bodies are passed to teams of civil servants working for the state’s religious authority, who take them into tents — some for men, others for women — to prepare them for burial and wrap them in white cloth. They are then put in body bags and laid on simple tables, where relatives pray for them, as they would normally do in mosques.

Carrying a body found in a collapsed building on Thursday in Kahramanmaras.Credit…Emin Ozmen for The New York Times

Then they are carried to the trenches and covered with dirt by a bulldozer. Some families add small, personal touches to the site, writing the person’s name on the wood with a pen, wrapping it with a scarf or laying flowers on the dirt.

Two adjacent graves each had pink socks with white horses, as if they belonged to a pair of sisters, or possibly twins.

The proximity to death takes a toll on the workers, too.

One gray-haired religious official who helped cleanse bodies said that he and his colleagues had felt depressed the day before after dealing with so many bodies that were so damaged.

“But we take shelter in God,” he said, declining to give his name because he was not authorized to speak to journalists. “We try to keep our spirits up because in front of us there is something valuable, a human.”

As the sun set through the pines, men carried body bags toward the graves, excavators lengthened the trenches and families rested next to their loved one’s plots, saying prayers or crying.

A 75-year-old woman who said she had lost 11 relatives in the earthquake walked toward the parking lot after a burial.

“All the little kids are gone,” she said.

The Kahramanmaras city cemetery, where victims of the earthquake are being buried.Credit…Emin Ozmen for The New York Times

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