School in court for digging up bodies

PUBLISHED : Monday, 08 January, 2001, 12:00am
UPDATED : Monday, 08 January, 2001, 12:00am

A court case involving a medical school that exhumed bodies from unmarked graves has turned attention to the shortage of cadavers facing mainland medical students.

The Intermediate People's Court in Zunyi city, Guizhou province, is now considering an appeal by the Zunyi Health College, which was sued last year for exhuming a body for the purpose of teaching medical students.

According to a report in the Workers' Daily, a businessman from Sichuan named Tang was one of more than 20 people killed in a massive car crash in 1988. Tang's family was not immediately told of his death and by the time they arrived in Zunyi the man had already been buried by villagers.

For the past 12 years family members have travelled to Guizhou and paid their respects during the traditional Ching Ming festival at the grave site.

When the family arrived for the festival last year, they were horrified to find the body had been removed from the grave. They were told by villagers that in November 1999 a man named Cheng had exhumed it.

Tang's son quickly found Mr Cheng, a student at the Zunyi Health College, who said he had informed the school when he found the unmarked grave and helped exhume the body. When the son contacted the school, it freely admitted its role in digging up the grave.

Despite the ease in determining where the missing body was taken, the legal and moral issues have been far more difficult to sort out.

Chinese tradition dictates that bodies should not be moved from their final resting places, let alone exhumed and dissected for medical testing. It is also very uncommon for Chinese to donate their bodies for medical research.

The Tang family took Mr Cheng and the Zunyi Health College to court on May 18. Although the two defendants did not appear at the trial in protest, the Renhuai city People's Court awarded the plaintiffs a total of 6,250 yuan (HK$5,800) in damages.

The court ordered the college to stop exhuming corpses and to return any it still had. It also ruled that the college had encroached on the family's rights by not first obtaining their approval.

Zunyi Health College filed an appeal on December 7, claiming no one could prove the exhumed body was Tang's. The appeal is pending.

'We only take corpses we are certain cannot be identified, and we make our students contact the police before a body is exhumed,' a college representative said. 'Since we are doing it for educational purposes, have we really done something wrong?'