Unclaimed bodies pile up as Paris looks for families

Tuesday, August 26, 2003

THIAIS, France -- The neat rows of freshly dug graves at a cemetery outside Paris illustrate the latest grim twist in the fallout over this summer's deadly heat wave.

The city has a backlog of 400 identified but unclaimed bodies it must bury from a blistering heat wave that has killed thousands of people. So a section of the Square of Indigents at the Thiais Cemetery will serve as a resting place -- if only temporarily.

Paris officials said Monday that the 400 corpses would be buried Sept. 1 at the cemetery south of Paris. If the family turns up later, the body can be reburied elsewhere.

"Families can come when they want, recover the body and organize a funeral or cremation, as they wish," said Cendrine Chapelle, a city employee.

August is the traditional month for summer vacation in France, and many have accused families of leaving their elderly relatives at home during the two-week heat wave -- and then delaying burials until after the holiday.

Officials were still compiling the casualty count from the record heat that started in early August when temperatures reached 104.

The biggest French chain of undertakers has estimated that more than 10,000 people died over the two-week span. The government initially said the estimate was probably correct, but Prime Minister Jean-Pierre Raffarin later said the figure is unreliable.

For now, the unclaimed bodies are in makeshift morgues in and around the French capital. About 100 were being stored in refrigerated trucks parked at a city-run warehouse in Ivry-sur-Seine, near the Thiais cemetery.

Paris Mayor Bertrand Delanoe said the city rented the refrigerated trucks to help relieve overwhelmed city coroners.

"Maybe they don't have relatives -- a great-nephew or otherwise -- who is interested in a burial," Delanoe said. "In any case, we're doing all that we can so it takes place in the most emotionally honorable conditions."

As the Sept. 1 deadline approaches, the city is trying to contact family members who may be unaware that relatives died.

On Monday, a staff of 20 City Hall employees started working the phones to track down relatives while a new hot line was created for families to find out about heat-related deaths.

The city deployed several buses to the Thiais Cemetery -- some to handle paperwork and others with counselors to console mourners if they arrive.

"Families are going to feel an enormous amount of guilt -- especially if they were on vacation and were ignorant of their loved ones' death," said Chantal Haegel, a counselor with the nonprofit group Live Without Grief.

While many opposition leaders have criticized the center-right government's response to the crisis, newspapers and editorial writers faulted French citizens in general on Monday.

Under the headline "French Barbarity," Renaud Girard, an editorialist for Le Figaro newspaper, wrote: "It's not up to the Father State to take care of our elderly. It's up to us."

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