Wed, Nov 06, 2019 - Page 13 News List

The undertaker and redemption

From the 2014 Penghu air disaster to last month’s Yilan bridge collapse, a volunteer team led by an ex-gangster has been on the scene providing mortuary services, from repairing mangled bodies to dealing with loved ones

By Han Cheung  /  Staff reporter

Chen Hsiu-chiang poses for a photo in his office in Changhua County.

Photo: Han Cheung, Taipei Times

For most of his life, Chen Hsiu-chiang (陳修將) did not believe that there was good in the world.

“People in gangs often don’t believe in humanity; we engage in antisocial behavior and believe that the world owes us and revolves around us. Our only value is materialism,” he says.

That life wasn’t too long ago. Nine years ago, at the age of 30, Chen got out of prison and left the underworld behind. He took a job in the funeral service industry.

Today, he is the organizer of 76 Monks (76行者遺體美容團隊), a growing network of more than 300 volunteers who respond to disasters and accidents nationwide, providing not just mortuary services such as repairing mangled bodies, but also social workers for the victims’ loved ones as well as helping with disaster relief. They were most recently on scene last month after the Nanfangao Bridge (南方澳橋) collapse, and have been involved in every major incident — as well as minor ones — since the TransAsia Airways Flight GE222 crash in 2014 that claimed 49 lives.

“We’ve handled large casualties from [last year’s] Puyuma train derailment and Hualien Earthquake to the [2017] Iris Travel bus crash … but it doesn’t matter how serious the incident is. Even if just one person died, we’ll be there,” Chen says.

Chen says he is driven by a desire to give back, having been shown genuine kindness from a prison volunteer.

“First of all, there’s a need for our services,” he says. “But I know how it feels to be at rock bottom when someone reaches out a helping hand; it’s a life-changing experience. I met many people with similar experiences, and we developed our team’s core values.”

SEEING THE GOOD

During his last stint in jail, Chen found it hard to believe that the instructors who came to teach writing classes were volunteers. One had even been doing it for 30 years.

“She told me that she hadn’t been a good wife and a good mother because she spent so much time with inmates. Even more surprisingly, her family wasn’t bitter and fully supported her endeavors,” Chen says.

Even when most inmates the teacher tried to help eventually returned to a life of crime, she told Chen she never felt discouraged.

“How can someone be so foolish?” he thought. “So this world really has people who do good without worrying about the results. I was deeply moved, and started to believe that there was good in this world.”

After getting out of jail, Chen wanted to emulate the teacher, but didn’t know where to start. Four years later on July 23, 2014, the Penghu plane disaster took place and the government called for volunteer morticians to help restore the bodies. Chen and 26 other professionals responded.

A week later, the group headed to Kaohsiung where 32 people were killed in a series of gas explosions.

The team grew from there, adding services, expanding its members and entering a partnership with the Central Emergency Operation Center last year. At first, they only accepted other funeral service professionals, but now Chen says the volunteers include all walks of life, “even including nursery school teachers.”

When last month’s bridge accident broke out, 76 Monks had team members in the area who were able to arrive on the scene immediately. After assessing the situation, since the low death toll of six people, a total of eight volunteers were dispatched to repair and transport the bodies to funeral homes.

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