Tasked with burying hundreds of victims of Turkey’s massive earthquakes, undertaker Ali Dogru brought his wife and four sons to live in an old bus by the cemetery where he works in the city of Iskenderun.
Last month’s devastating earthquakes killed more than 54,000 people in Turkey and Syria and left millions homeless. Survivors are sheltering in tents, container homes, hotel resorts, university dormitories and even train carriages after hundreds of thousands of buildings collapsed and others were left unsafe.
Worried about his family’s safety, Dogru moved his family to the cemetery from their damaged apartment shortly after the first earthquake struck on February 6. They have been living in an abandoned bus there since.
In his more than six years working at the cemetery, the 46-year-old undertaker typically buried around five bodies a day. The first night after the earthquake, he buried 12 people. The daily numbers of incoming bodies began to soar and within 10 days of the quake, he had arranged the burials of a total of 1,210 victims.
He can cope with living in a cemetery, he said, but the high number of burials over such a short period of time has left him with deep mental scars.
A former butcher, Dogru likened the sight of people carrying their dead family members to the cemetery to people carrying lambs as sacrificial offerings for the Muslim feast of Eid al-Adha.
“As a butcher, I used to see people bring lambs in their arms to be sacrificed. It hit me very hard when I saw people carrying their children, their partners,” he said.
With so many burials to arrange, Dogru had to find heavy machinery to dig graves and coordinate with the tens of imams who came from all over Turkey to help.
“All I wanted was one thing: to work day and night to finish this job. I didn’t want people coming and saying that the bodies were not buried,” he said, adding there were no mass graves.
Dogru said he buried some children and parents who died in each other’s arms in the same grave and stopped people from separating them. “I said: ‘Death could not separate this child from the mother or the father. Why would you do so?’”
Dogru also helped officials photograph unidentified bodies, and take fingerprints and blood and DNA samples. He later showed families to the graves of their relatives, after they had been found through blood tests.