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The bone collector

Published Feb 5, 2011


Tainan - Like many Taiwanese teenage girls, Lee You-fang likes to sing pop songs and play with her pet dog, but she has an unusual job:

working with the bones of the dead.

For five years, 19-year-old Lee has honed her craft as a “bone collector,” assisting her father in an ancient funerary rite that involves collecting, cleaning and arranging human skeletons for reburial.

She began working full-time after graduating from high school last year, following in the footsteps of her great-grandfather who started the family business eight decades ago.

“Many clients were very surprised when they saw me because there are very few women in this profession,” she said during an interview at a cemetery in Tainan, southern Taiwan, while taking a break from washing bones.

Lee may appear timid with her girlish face and a soft voice but she betrays no fear when it comes to her special line of work.

“Everyone I met asked if the job was frightening and my answer was always no,” she said.

“I remembered watching my grandfather and my father at work since I was in elementary school and I didn't feel scared then. I was more curious to see the bones.”

To prepare for the reburial, bone collectors first open the tomb to remove the remains of a body, and they have to be careful not to inhale the odour the moment the coffin is opened.

“This can be the most dangerous and probably the scariest part as some bone collectors died from inhaling the poisonous smell,” she said.

“My grandfather once opened the coffin of a woman and the body practically 'jumped up'. Everybody fled in panic thinking that she'd come back to life. But actually the body hadn't decomposed, and it was her hair that caught the lid.”

The next step involves cleaning the bones with alcohol before putting them back together to be dried by the sun and wind.

The spine is tied with a red thread and a tree branch while parts of the skeleton are marked with red ink to symbolise blood and family lineage.

Prayers aimed at blessing the deceased and their offspring are recited, while the skeleton is put in an urn and enshrined in a pagoda rather than in the ground.

Lee and her father often have to climb high mountains to reach remote cemeteries where they dig out the bones, she said.

“We often found poisonous snakes or big red fire ants lurking around the tombs. Frankly I am more scared of the snakes than the dead because snakes can bite me.”

Bone collecting is linked to a belief that the feng shui of ancestral graves will affect the lives of the descendants and that a reburial can help turn around luck in difficult times. - Sapa-AFP

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