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SCOTT SIMON, host:

This is WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News. I'm Scott Simon. It's now known that more than 22,000 died in the massive earthquake that rocked China last Monday. Tens of thousands more are missing and presumed dead. In the worst-affected areas, survivors are still burying their loved ones. NPR's Louisa Lim was in Hong Bai village with one family as they performed this ritual.

(Soundbite of digging)

LOUISA LIM: 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 their house, collapsing a kitchen wall on top of the old woman.

Sitting on a rock watching the diggers is 49-year-old Zhan Fulan.

Ms. ZHAN FULAN (Earthquake Survivor, China): (Speaking foreign language).

Unidentified Translator: She said before the earthquake, they just came back from like working the field, and they got to the house, and her mom was giving her a fruit to eat. Before she could finish the whole fruit, then the earthquake happened, and then the whole wall just fell over on her mom, and she didn't have time to get her, to save her, so all her family went out.

LIM: 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 his father, Ma Xishun(ph).

Mr. MA XISHUN (Earthquake Survivor, China): (Speaking foreign language).

Unidentified Translator: He said yes, certainly they do have worries because traditionally, they would ask a person to come and see if this place is all right, if it's going to be beneficial to the later generations. But now, they don't have any other choice because they just got in today, like this morning at 8:00, to search for their grandma. So they just found her, and then they just have to bury her like right here.

Mr. XISHUN: (Speaking foreign language).

Unidentified Translator: They bury people here so that the later generations will know what happened now.

LIM: The family are picking up a heavy wooden coffin now. It's a big, black-and-red wooden coffin, and they're carrying it to the grave.

They just put the body, which was wrapped in a yellow, plastic shroud, into the coffin, and they've covered the face area with a white cloth, and now they're putting the lid on the coffin.

(Soundbite of lid being placed on coffin)

Unidentified Woman: (Speaking foreign language).

Unidentified Translator: One of their customs of burying dead people is that they dress them with whole white clothes, but her mom - like the body was so hard so like she couldn't put on any clothes for her, and she couldn't bear looking at her. So they just put like white cloths over her.

Unidentified Woman: (Speaking foreign language).

Unidentified Translator: Even when she was 40 years old because in China, it's a common practice for old people to have a coffin prepared before they die.

Unidentified Woman: (Speaking foreign language).

LIM: The men in the family have worked very fast at building this grave. Now they've built up a whole wall of stones surrounding the grave, and the entire process has taken about an hour. There's been almost no discussion, as well, between them as they go about their business. They all know what to do, and the reason for that is because they've done an awful lot of this over the past couple of days.

Two days ago, they had to bury two of Ma Jian's nieces who died when the school they were studying in collapsed upon them.

(Soundbite of footsteps)

LIM: Suddenly with no warning, she gets up and leaves. This burial has been entirely matter of fact with no ceremony at all. For this family and so many others here, this hurried, mechanical burial (unintelligible) the loss of any spiritual comfort that the souls of those who died 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.

Now Zhan Fulan walks down to what remains of their house.

Ms. FULAN: (Speaking foreign language)

LIM: They're telling me their house is in here, and I mean, the scene in front of me is a complete wasteland. It's entirely devastating. Now we're picking our way over the rubble.

Unidentified Woman: (Speaking foreign language).

LIM: Now we've got to their house, and it is just completely flattened. There's just an enormous pile of concrete and brick and planks of wood. There's a television, broken television on its side. I can see on top of the television, there's somebody's medical records, but there's nothing that lets you imagine how this could've once been a house.

Unidentified Woman: (Speaking foreign language).

Unidentified Translator: She doesn't want to come back again ever because they cannot rely on the land they have, and their pigs and chickens are all buried, and they won't have any water supply, and the roads are blocked, and as she was standing here earlier, she was scared because the aftershock happened.

LIM: Scavenging through the wreckage, she notices a piece of string. She picks it up, folds it carefully and puts it in her bag. Then without a backwards glance, she leaves the house. Louisa Lim, NPR News, Hong Bai village, Sichuan Province, China.

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