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Pauper graves for French heat victims

Paris, Aug. 24 (Reuters): France’s killer heatwave has left hundreds of corpses lying unclaimed in Paris morgues, prompting city officials to organise temporary burials in paupers’ graves to relieve pressure on their overburdened funeral services.

Revealing their dilemma at the weekend, officials announced a drive to contact families oblivious to their loved ones’ fate and assured Parisians the corpses would not be buried anonymously in a common grave. The lonesome burials added a grim new twist to the controversy over the heatwave, which has claimed an estimated 10,000 victims and raised questions about France’s prized health system and the way it failed to care for its elderly citizens.

Several weeks of temperatures mounting to over 40 degrees Celsius in some areas took a heavy toll on dehydrated elderly people. About half the victims died in understaffed homes for the elderly or hospitals where they sought help.

Paris City Hall has unofficial estimates of 200 to 300 unclaimed corpses in morgues, including refrigerator trucks and a cool hall at the Rungis wholesale food market due to be returned to normal business next week, French media said.

Without giving a figure, Paris police chief Jean-Paul Proust announced the city would bury all corpses left unclaimed for 10 days according to the normal procedures for paupers.

“These corpses will not be buried in a common grave,” he said in a statement, denying a local press report that unclaimed bodies would be dumped into secret mass graves.

The special concrete-lined graves would all be marked and families could have the caskets exhumed for a proper reburial elsewhere at a later time, he said.

The daily Le Parisien reported 50 corpses were buried this way in the paupers’ section of a large cemetery in eastern Paris yesterday and more were due to be interred today.

Paris Mayor Bertrand Delanoe defended the burial plan, saying the corpses could not remain in refrigerated morgue chambers indefinitely. “I want them to have the decent grave that they deserve,” he said.

Coming during the usual August vacation stupor, the crisis went unnoticed until alarming estimates of thousands of deaths hit the headlines in the middle of this month.

Prime Minister Jean-Pierre Raffarin, whose image was badly tarnished by his slow reaction to the crisis, said yesterday he was saddened and angered by the confusion in the health system that the heatwave revealed.

“I can’t get reliable figures,” he complained. “Day after day, I see estimates here and projections there and they produce contradictory numbers.”

An Ifop poll published today said Raffarin’s popularity had slipped by two points to 43 per cent because of the heatwave crises and other issues. Yesterday, he was loudly jeered as he opened the World Athletics Championships in Paris.

President Jacques Chirac, whose ratings slid by two points to 56 per cent in reaction to his silence during the heatwave, on Thursday pledged more money for the health system whose expenses he had wanted to cut in an austerity drive.

The heatwave, which has also taken a heavy toll on agriculture across Europe, has caused an estimated 1,316 deaths in Portugal.

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