He had no net, hook, or line, and he could not be a fisherman; his boat had no cushion for a sitter, no paint, no inscription, no appliance beyond a rusty boathook and a coil of rope, and he could not be a waterman; his boat was too crazy and small to take in cargo for delivery, and he could not be a lighterman or river-carrier; there was no clue to what he looked for, but he looked for something, with a most intent and searching gaze. The tide, which had turned an hour before, was running down, and his eyes watched every little race and eddy in its broad sweep, as the boat made slight head-way against it, or drove stern foremost before it, according as he directed his daughter by a movement of his head. She watched his face as earnestly as he watched the river. But, in the intensity of her look there was a touch of dread or horror.
“Our Mutual Friend” – Charles Dickens
I read “Our Mutual Friend” the best part of a decade ago, and to this day it remains my favourite Dickens–and one of my favourite books. So when I read the story in the news today about the man who fishes for bodies on the Yellow River, Gaffer Hexham was the first thing that came to mind.
Actually, he was the second: the first being “Eeeeeew.”
Wei Xinpeng collects the bodies the river washes up; be they victims of accident, foul play or suicide and returns them to their families. It’s all the same to him. He believes he brings dignity to the dead and closure to their relatives (a closure, incidentally, he never had)–but he charges for the privilege. Twice: a small fee to view the corpses he collects, and a larger one should a family find what they’re looking for.
Is he doing the best he can, reuniting the living with the lost when the authorities don’t care, or is he somehow profiting from desperate grieving families? In a country like China, particularly in rural areas where old traditions still hold sway, burial is an important part of life (and death), there’s more than a hint of Charon about the boatman on the Yellow River…