The shepherd of our unknown dead

Dr Adnan Abbas, the man in charge of the Abu Dhabi morgue, has made it his mission to ensure unclaimed bodies are buried in weeks rather than years.

ABU DHABI // The last thing Dr Adnan Abbas wants is a morgue full of unclaimed and unidentified bodies. "I want every dead body buried as soon as possible," said the forensic pathologist and the head of the death section at Sheikh Khalifa Medical City (SKMC). "My job is to make sure that happens."

The SKMC morgue, a beige, two-storey building obscured behind the larger, patient-care sections of the hospital, is the penultimate resting place for all the dead of Abu Dhabi - both from the island and the areas near the capital. It can accommodate 75 bodies, and is usually around half full. But lack of space is not the reason Dr Abbas prefers timely burial. "Even if no one shows up to claim an identified body, and even if the body is labelled as an unknown case and we are unable to identify it or inform the family of the death, the right thing to do is to put the body to rest," he said.

Every once in while - maybe twice a month, or less - a body arrives with no identification papers and is labelled as an "unknown case." Dr Abbas has created a system to deal with these bodies. Once one is received, his team of forensic pathologists categorises it as a police or non-police case, depending on the cause of death and on whether there are other papers and any contact information. "We examine the body externally, and if we can, we determine the cause of death," he said.

"When the cause of death is very obvious, such as in the case of an accident or a natural cause, we send a primary report to the police and wait for the public prosecutor's decision." The public prosecutor and the police follow up. "The police photograph the body, fingerprint it, take DNA samples if needed, check the clothing as evidence - because clothing is considered the first layer of skin in forensics and can help in providing identifying factors," he said.

If identity can be established, the public prosecutor contacts the family or informs the relevant embassy or sponsor. "We do not have the authority to deal with the embassies," said Dr Abbas. "Our role is to inform the forensic doctor at the judicial department and the public prosecutor, and follow up with them. They, in turn, follow up with the concerned police department." He catalogues his morgue each month and sends a report to prosecution asking for permission to release the bodies for burial.

Dr Yasin Horani, a forensic pathologist at the morgue, said that prior to Dr Abbas's arrival four years ago, some bodies were kept for up to 10 years. "We would receive decomposed bodies or skeletons that were found in the desert, and they are obviously a police case," he said. "They remained as open cases for years because no one claimed the bodies and the case was never resolved." Now it is rare for bodies to remain for that long. Currently there are no unidentified bodies - the last one was buried three weeks ago.

"We had a skeleton corpse that was brought to us a year and a half ago, our longest resident body," Dr Horani said. It was found buried in the desert, where it had been for around six months. "We continued to follow up with police, who were working on the case, until the permission for burial came in a few weeks ago, and now he is out of here." Once the burial permit arrives, a death certificate is issued and the body is prepared for a Muslim burial in the cemetery in Bani Yas.

Some bodies may be identified but unclaimed. "Cost is an issue, not everyone can afford to have their dead son or daughter sent back home. So they send a permission for us to bury the body or dispose of it as they wish." No fees are charged for local burial. There is a Christian graveyard in Bani Yas as well, not far from the Muslim cemetery, and bodies to be cremated are sent to the New Medical Centre.

"If it is not a police case and paperwork is in order and there is a representative to receive the body, the procedure will be completed within a short period of time," Dr Abbas said. "But for police cases, we have to wait in order to get the permit for body release and complete the procedures." Regardless of the status of a body, however, his priority is the same: bury it. "Why would I want to keep these bodies here indefinitely, for what? The morgue is just a stop for them on their way to their final home."