The lady who digs up dead bodies

Published: 06/02/2010 05:00



At the age of 15, Pham Thi Binh first followed her father to cemeteries where he was paid to exhume bodies. Now she has taken on the role herself.

Binh always uses bared hands at work.

Binh, 37, said that her life has always been closely attached to tombs and remains. People in Dai Cau village, Duy Tien district, Ha Nam province call her as “Binh hai cot” (Binh remains).

She is still single and while she hopes for a family but because of her job, she says: “Men don’t dare to love me.”

One day with the female exhumer

According to Vietnamese custom, dead people must be exhumed after three years and this task is often carried out at the year’s end. So Binh is very busy now. She has had to ask for help from her brother, Pham Van Vien, from Thai Nguyen province.

“I have to exhume at least two tombs,” Binh told VietNamNet.

Joined by one of our reporters,Binh and her brother had to go to the local cemetery. Vien wore rubber boots, carried a hoe, a spade and a shovel. Binh put on a waterproof trousers, rubber boots and carried a shovel.

“I have to work while others sleep and sleep while others stay awake,” Binh said.

Walking on the road in the cemetery of Dai Cau village, Binh said: “Today I have two cases. One in Dai Cau village and another in Lao Cau village. After I and Mr. Vien finish digging this tomb, we will go to Lao Cau village”.

At noon, the cemetery and the field were totally empty. Vien used a hoe and Binh held a shovel to dig a tomb. The weather was very cold in late December and Binh’s back was soaked with sweat. The two sometimes stopped for a while to drink water before continuing their job.

“This tomb is deep, over 1.2m but the soil is soft. I hope that we can finish by 3pm. We will dig to the soil layer of 10cm above the coffin and finish at night,” Binh said.

VietNamNet’s reporters asked to witness the job till the end. Binh agreed but reminded the reporter to wear a mask and “not to be frightened”.

She said: “Recently I exhumed a tomb in a nearby commune. When I opened the coffin, I saw that the dead person was still in the same shape with skin and flesh and hair. I told the family to burry the coffin again but they didn’t agree, so I had to try. Returning home, I drank one third of a bottle of alcohol.”

Binh and her brother at work.

At 11.15pm, two motorbikes came to Binh’s house to carry Binh and her brother to the cemetery. In raincoats and masks, Binh and Vien left the house.

At 0.5am, in incense smoke and to the sounds of crying from the dead person’s family, Binh slowly jumped into the grave to open the coffin. The light from several torches showing the dead person rolled in cloths. With bared hands, Binh briskly did her job. She found pieces of bones, washing soil and put into a small basin.

The next job is washing the remains by fragrant water and arranging the bones into an earthenware container and stuck a big bundle of incense to the grave. Vien helped Binh to wash the bones. Then the job was finished.

Binh says she exhumes hundreds of tombs a year in her village, neighboring villages and other provinces like Hung Yen and Hanoi.

The portrait

Binh’s comfort is her adopted daughter, Pham Thi Hoa, nearly 16.

“I don’t like my mother’s job. My mother works all night. It is very hard!” Hoa said.

Binh said that she doesn’t want her daughter to follow her steps. She hopes she will apply for a job at a nearby factory or an industrial zone for Hoa.

Binh’s house is located at the bottom of the village, in front of a spacious field. Not far from the house is the village’s cemetery.

Besides exhumation, Binh is not afraid to fish dead bodies from rivers. “Last year I fished the body of an old woman from the Day river. She committed suicide because of jealousness. I have also helped doctors to perform autopsies,” Binh told VietNamNet’s reporter.

Among dozens of cases, Binh never forgets the dead body that she fished out from the Cai River three years ago. When she came, the body was swollen and smell but Binh still helped the family to arrange the body in coffin.

She said that she has seen many dead bodies without hands, head or feet.

For poor families, Binh doesn’t take much money or even works for free.

Will she always be an exhumer?

Binh smiles and says: “You have to ask people. If they don’t ask me to help, I will be a farmer!”

Van Chung

Provide by Vietnam Travel

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