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Special cemetery for Christchurch mosque shooting victims

  • Published at 12:59 am March 18th, 2019
Workers dig grave sites at a cemetery in Christchurch on March 17, 2019 AFP

The special section is being dug in a corner of Christchurch’s Memorial Park Cemetery

Graves for the victims of the worst mass shooting in the country’s history were being dug on Saturday, in anticipation of their bodies being released by the authorities.

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, reports the Telegraph.

Workmen using diggers carefully prepared the ground in a quiet corner of Memorial Park Cemetery, with colleagues erecting a cloth over a fence to preserve the dignity of their work on part of the site set aside for Muslim burials, the graves facing Mecca, reports Stuff.

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 night.

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 assailant Brenton Tarrant, who live-streamed the shooting spree in real time.

Chief Coroner Judge Deborah Marshall, two other coroners and four support staff are in Christchurch to support two local coroners and help speed up the victim identification process. 

Marshall said coroners, police and forensic pathologists were working as quickly as they could to establish the identities of those who lost their lives. 

"There could be nothing worse than giving the wrong body to the wrong family, and we find from overseas examples that when you try to speed up the process or miss out steps, that is exactly what happens, and it is not going to happen here."

She said identification hearings would start on Sunday afternoon and it was expected the process of returning the deceased would begin that night. 

Christchurch mayor Lianne Dalziel said police and coronial services are working "as hard as they could" to get victims' bodies returned as soon as possible.

"There's an [Islamic] cultural imperative about burying the bodies within 24 hours," Dalziel said. "I've talked to some of the community leaders and they're now satisfied and there's agreement about how quickly that can happen, after coronial work is complete."

Sextons from out of town have travelled to Christchurch to help prepare graves in the city's eastern suburbs, she said. "The burial sites are really important. The graves have to be facing the right way, and they have to be a particular size. There's a lot of work to do and things have to be ordered in."

It is not clear when funerals will begin.

Police Deputy Commissioner Wally Haumaha said police understood that the families not being able to bury their loved ones quickly, according to their religious duty, was an added trauma for them.

"Our sole focus is to get their loved ones back and to follow the cultural traditions such as the washing and shrouding of the loved ones, and we have made premises available to carry out these sensitive cultural issues."

He said authorities were working closely with Imams from local and national mosques and the Federation of Islamic Associations of New Zealand. He would not say when it was hoped all bodies would be released to the families. 

Muslim volunteers have also been arriving from across the Tasman to help with the custom of washing the bodies.

Ali Armando flew in with a group from Brisbane, reporting to the makeshift crisis centre at Hagley College after Friday's deadly mosque terror attack in Christchurch.

Volunteers are offering support for the families of the terror attack victims, security around the area and ghusl – the Islamic practice of washing the dead.

"We're ready so that as soon as they start releasing the bodies, we'll do the washing," Armando said.

Armando said as soon as he received news of the terror attacks, he knew he needed to come to Christchurch.

"I'm going to jump on a plane and come and do whatever I can as a human being, as well as a Muslim," he said.

"The [alleged gunman] was an Australian himself, so as Australians we feel like we should do whatever we can do to help."

He said moral support was important and Islamic protocols needed to be followed, with families having to refrain from weeping or wailing.