Death + the Economy Death Ethics

Body Fishing Up Ahead

Bodies floating in the Yellow River near Changpo Village in China’s Gansu Province. Photo credit: Tom Lasseter/MCT

This story has affected me in a way that many others about death have not. The complete and utter sense of tragedy permeating it is hard to shake and the mental imagery conjured up while reading it is the stuff of nightmares. In what has got to be one of the more grim and disturbing jobs in the world, CNN and other outlets reported this week on the “body fisherman”; mostly men who trawl for murder, suicide and the occasional drowning victim that floats down the Yellow River, about 20 kilometers to the west of Lanzhou, China. Those who perform this grim work advertise their services and cell phone numbers on hand painted signs that read “Body Fishing Up Ahead”.

The story, which has been picked up here and there since September, appeared in the Asia Times and various McClatchy news service outlets. Most recently, CNN reported on it just this week.

There seems to be two overarching threads in these stories. Some believe the people who would do such work are nothing more than ruthless mercenaries taking advantage of grief-stricken families. Charging what would be exorbitant fees—even by Western standards—the fisherman turn bodies over to families only as a fee is paid. Others say that the work they do is a necessary public service that local authorities cannot or will not provide. Who is right? It is clear that there are no easy answers and very little offered in the way of solutions to help stem the deathly tide.

In 2008, a documentary called The Other Shore, brought the practice to light for those outside of China. The film profiles Wei Zhiqian from Xiaoxia village in Gansu, a longtime body fisherman who recently ended his life’s work due to the building of a giant dam upriver. In his place, new families have taken over the trade despite increasing pressure from authorities to stop. There is still potentially much money to be made.

Lun Lun, 24, stated to CNN, “I have worked on this section of the river for several years. I’ve seen hundreds of bodies float downstream. They gather around here and we fish them out one by one. I’d like to say I’m a boat operator but really, I search for the dead.”

While China’s economy continues to grow, perhaps other unforeseen odd and gruesome jobs such as this one will present themselves. Scores of bodies will be needed to support and feed the industrial engine of the world’s second largest economy. It is sad to think that many of those bodies will be casualties in this accelerated march toward “progress” and empire building.

Death + Biology Death + Technology

Putrescine, Cadaverine, and Dog Job Stealing Robots

New Insights into the “Smell of Death” Could Help Recover Bodies in Disasters and Solve Crimes
American Chemical Society Press Release (August 16, 2009)

via SmartPlanet, “Smelling Death Electronically”
(John Dodge, August 26, 2009)

Okay, so “robot” may be an overstatement. Nonetheless, Penn State chemists are working on detecting and identifying the properties and release patterns of the gases expelled during the decomposition of bodies. Detecting such gases, including “putrescine” and “cadaverine,” is useful for locating the victims of natural disasters or discovering covert burial sites and mass graves.

As presented at the 238th National Meeting of the American Chemical Society, Sarah Jones and Dan Sykes propose that more detailed forensic information — gathered from dead pigs, which have a decomposition process similar to humans — could lead to a portable electronic device that can sniff out corpses more efficiently and cost-effectively than traditional, training-intensive cadaver hounds. Analyzing the presence and levels of the more than 30 compounds released over the course of decomposition, such a device could also pinpoint the time of death, quickly and on site.

According to the poster session abstract,

Human decomposition is a very complex process and has not been well studied at the chemical level. Studying the development of volatile organic compounds (VOCs) over a certain period of time, using pigs as an alternative to humans, could possibly provide important relevant forensic information about the unknown chemical composition of death. Solid phase microextraction fibers will be used to collect the VOCs that are released from the pig carcass during the early stages of decomposition. Once the compounds are collected, they will be identified and quantified using gas chromatography-mass spectrometry. The data collected will be used to determine if there is a true correlation between compounds present and the interval since time of death.

Poor pigs. Poor dogs. Gross gross gross all around. Go science!

Death + the Economy Death Ethics

Funeral Home Moves, Forgets Corpse in Casket

A woman dead for several years traveled with a relocating funeral home around San Antonio, Texas, as the undertaker awaited payment from an indigent family. The last time Forest Park Funeral Home moved, the body was left behind in a shed. New reports suggest she was supposed to be cremated in 2006.