A Chinese Family Buries Its Dead, Not Its Grief

Zhan Fulan sobs as Li Mingxiu is laid to rest.

Zhan Fulan sobs as her mother, Li Mingxiu, is laid to rest. Brendan Banaszak/NPR hide caption

itoggle caption Brendan Banaszak/NPR
Ma Jian pauses as he digs a grave for his grandmother’s body.

Ma Jian pauses as he digs a grave for his grandmother's body. Brendan Banaszak, NPR hide caption

itoggle caption Brendan Banaszak, NPR
Family and friends in Hongbai village carry the casket of Li Mingxiu to a grave. i i

Family and friends in Hongbai village carry the casket of Li Mingxiu to a grave. Brendan Banaszak, NPR hide caption

itoggle caption Brendan Banaszak, NPR
Family and friends in Hongbai village carry the casket of Li Mingxiu to a grave.

Family and friends in Hongbai village carry the casket of Li Mingxiu to a grave.

Brendan Banaszak, NPR
Zhan Fulan sorts through the pile of debris that used to be her family’s home. i i

Zhan Fulan sorts through the pile of debris that used to be her family's home. Brendan Banaszak/NPR hide caption

itoggle caption Brendan Banaszak/NPR
Zhan Fulan sorts through the pile of debris that used to be her family’s home.

Zhan Fulan sorts through the pile of debris that used to be her family's home.

Brendan Banaszak/NPR

It's now known that more than 22,000 people died in the massive earthquake that rocked China on Monday. Tens of thousands more are missing, presumed dead. In the worst-affected areas, survivors are still burying their loved ones. In Hongbai village, NPR's Louisa Lim joined one family as they performed this ritual.

On a hillside overlooking devastation of biblical proportions, a small group of men is digging.

Shovels swinging rhythmically, they work intently, ignoring the huge relief operation further down the slope.

With their own hands, this family is burying its 89-year-old matriarch, Li Mingxiu. She was crushed to death when the force of the earthquake flattened the family's home, collapsing a kitchen wall on top of the old woman. Sitting on a rock, watching the diggers, is Li Mingxiu's 49-year-old daughter-in-law, Zhan Fulan.

Zhan Fulan says that before the earthquake, the family returned to the house from working in the field. Li Mingxiu handed Zhan Fulan a fruit to eat. But even before she could finish eating it, the earthquake happened, and the wall collapsed on her mother-in-law.

"I didn't have time to save her," Zhan Fulan says, wiping away her tears.

Twenty-six-year-old Ma Jian is stony-faced as he digs his grandmother's final resting place. The corpse is in a yellow plastic body bag, lying on a plank beside them as they work. The family is ignoring proper burial customs, which concerns Ma Jian's father, Ma Kaishun.

Ma Kaishun says that traditionally, a Feng shui master would oversee the selection of a good burial site. This is important, because having good Feng shui propitiates the spirit of the dead, which is believed to bring good fortune for the next generation.

But in these dire circumstances, there's no time for such considerations. Since the earthquake, the family has been staying in another town. And on this day, they returned to their home at 8 o'clock in the morning to search for Li Mingxiu's body.

"We're burying her here so that later generations know what happened at this site," Ma Kaishun says.

As the burial begins, family members pick up a heavy red and black wooden coffin and carry it to the gravesite. They place the body inside the coffin, cover the face with a white cloth, and put the lid on.

Zhan Fulan says that customarily, the bodies of the dead are dressed in white. But Zhan Fulan says her mother's body was so rigid that Zhan Fulan couldn't change the clothes on her body or even look at her. So the family merely covered her with white clothes. They have had a coffin for Li Mingxiu for nearly 50 years: In this part of China, it is common practice for people to buy a coffin before they die to ensure they receive a proper burial.

The men in the family work very fast to build the grave. They build up a wall of stones girding the front of the grave. The whole process takes about an hour. There is almost no discussion between them as they go about their business. They all know what to do: Just two days ago, they had to bury two of Ma Jian's nieces, who died when their school collapsed while they were inside.

For this family — and for so many others in the region — such hurried, mechanical burials deny them the comfort of knowing that the souls buried here will rest in peace.

This family is numb from loss: the loss of their children, their mother, their home, their livelihood, their entire village.

There's no clear signal the interment is over. But suddenly, with no warning, Zhan Fulan gets up and leaves. The burial has been entirely matter of fact, with no ceremony at all. Zhan Fulan walks down to what remains of their house, picking her way through the rubble.

Looking down the street, which just days ago was her home, the scene is a wasteland: Every house on the entire street has been destroyed. Zhan Fulan's house is completely flattened. All that remains is an enormous pile of concrete, bricks and planks of wood. A broken television lies on its side; someone's medical records are strewn about. It's hard to see how this was once a house.

"My family doesn't want to come back ever again," Zhan Fulan says. She says that they cannot rely on the land. The livestock is dead. There's no water supply and roads are blocked. And then there is the continuing fear of aftershocks.

Scavenging through the wreckage, Zhan Fulan notices a piece of string, picks it up, folds it carefully and puts it in her bag to take away with her. Then, without a backwards glance, she leaves the house behind.

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