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Identification of bodies

Techniques of preservation and identification

Thousands of corpses of tsunami victims are stacked in temporary morgues converted from Buddhist temples across southern Thailand. Some are kept in refrigerated containers, where the process of decomposition is slowed down. Others are buried near the temples in rows of shallow graves, where temperatures are below that required for the survival of maggots.

However, many bodies were already in various stages of decomposition before they were found. In addition, Thailand's hot and humid climate accelerated the rate of decomposition, complicating efforts to identify them. Facial recognition of bodies is almost impossible, as bodies are bloated; scars and malformations are hardly visible.

It is difficult to tell male from female, let alone local from foreigner. In some cases, the whole skin has disappeared. Therefore, experts are relying on other modern methods to identify victims. Forensic scientists rely on dental records to identify Westerners, who generally have dental records since childhood. For locals and other Asians, DNA must be used, as fingerprints have dissolved, rendering fingerprint records totally useless.

Process of searching for missing loved ones

The first stop for people in search of their loved ones is a gallery of photographs displayed on bulletin boards at the temporary morgues. Families scrutinize pictures for distinctive scars, jewellery or facial features, hoping to find the bodies of their loved ones.

Although the pictures were taken as soon as the bodies were found, most bodies were already beyond recognition, and covered in dirt, mud and debris. If the search is without success, they move on to a search coordination centre where they supply information of dead family members, such as records of surgeries.

Moving Bodies
Source: Photoduck


Thai authorities have decided that every corpse has to be DNA tested, so that there is no mistake in identification. That means that even people who can provide evidence such as prominent features have to wait for the test results, before they can claim the bodies of their deceased family.

Moreover, the quality of DNA degenerates over time, and some entire families may have been wiped out, such that their nearest kin may not have DNA which is representative of the families' genetic traits. Sadly, some bodies may never be recovered, as they have been washed into the open sea.


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