The special section is being dug in a corner of Christchurch’s Memorial Park Cemetery, as officials announced Sunday they have begun releasing bodies to families for burial.
Activity had increased at the cemetery by Sunday night, prompting the addition of large white screens around the burial plot area. Armed police patrolled the perimeter of the cemetery, while the area was inundated with family members seeking to bury their dead.
In keeping with Islamic custom, the bodies will be prepared by family and friends—a task made almost unimaginable considering many will have been riddled with bullets. Muslim cleric Sheikh Amjad Ali told The Daily Beast that each individual will be religiously washed and wrapped in white sheets to be made pure before their burial.
New Zealand Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern told reporters on Sunday that a “small number” of victims’ bodies would soon be ready for burial, with all of the bodies handed over by Wednesday. She added that the Cabinet would discuss when to schedule a national day of mourning. She also signed a national condolence book in Parliament on Sunday morning, writing, “On behalf of all New Zealanders we grieve together. We are one, they are us.”
Because the deaths are related to a homicide inquiry, the bodies must all undergo a thorough autopsy and identification process, which will be pertinent in the criminal trial against alleged assailant Brenton Tarrant, who allegedly live-streamed the shooting spree in real time.
The bodies are currently in Christchurch Hospital’s morgue while they undergo a rigorous examination, including DNA matching. Some of the mourners have complained that the local coroners and forensic specialists are not working quickly enough to return their loved ones in keeping with Islamic burial tradition of burying the dead within 24 hours of death. Special dispensation is given in circumstances such as the mosque shooting, but several families have expressed frustration that their loved ones have not yet been returned more than 72 hours after the incident.
Christchurch Hospital said that as of Sunday, 34 people who suffered injuries in the attack were still undergoing treatment. Twelve of those are in critical condition in the hospital’s intensive care ward. A 4-year-old girl was transferred to Starship Children’s Hospital in Auckland to undergo specialized treatment in the pediatric unit. She remains in critical condition. Almost a dozen people have been treated and released for wounds that include embedded glass fragments, lacerations, and back, knee, and foot injuries.