Christchurch, New Zealand – Six bodies have been returned to the families of Christchurch mosque attack victims, according to New Zealand police, amid growing anguish over a lack of progress by officials tasked with identifying the dead.
In a statement on Tuesday evening, police said six other bodies were also ready to be released having been “identified to the satisfaction” of coroners tasked with distinguishing the 50 victims killed last week in the Pacific country’s worst-ever mass shooting.
Autopsies had been completed on all those killed, the statement added.
“While identification may seem straightforward the reality is much more complex, particularly in a situation like this,” the police statement said.
“Our absolute priority is to get this right and ensure that no mistakes are made,” it added.
Anguish over delayed burials
The police announcement came against a backdrop of growing frustrations within Christchurch’s Muslim community over the release of the bodies of Friday’s attack, with families eager to bury their loved ones thwarted from doing so to date.
Police are acutely aware of frustrations by families associated with the length of time required for the identification process following Friday’s terror attack.
— New Zealand Police (@nzpolice) March 19, 2019
Muslims customarily bury the deceased within 24 hours of death. Before their burial, the bodies are washed and wrapped in a white shroud so that funeral prayers can be conducted.
On Sunday, New Zealand Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern said some bodies would be returned to victims’ families the same evening and expressed hope that all of those killed would be with their relatives again by Wednesday at the latest.
It now seems unlikely that that will be the case, however, with coroners and police yet to confirm the identity of 38 of those killed at the Al Noor and Linwood mosques in what Ardern has branded a “terrorist” attack.
Volunteers at a makeshift victim support centre in Christchurch, set up in the wake of the massacre, said the Muslim community’s initial patience with the authorities’ processes was beginning to run out.
“They were understanding but no longer as much now,” Javed Dadabhai, who is part of a team at the support centre helping to organise the release of bodies and burials, told Al Jazeera.
“The mood is starting to shift, there’s still nothing the families can do about it because it’s not something they can push, but there’s a bit more venting starting to happen,” he added.
‘Procedures versus culture’
Officials have pledged to move swiftly in returning bodies to the victims’ families, acknowledging the need to act as “quickly and sensitively as possible”.
Mike Bush, New Zealand’s police chief, said on Sunday that authorities were aware of the “cultural and religious needs” of Muslim victims.
On Tuesday, New Zealand Police Association President Chris Cahill said he understood the “great level of frustration” felt by families eager to reclaim their loved ones but added officials had to “follow procedure”.
“The last thing anyone would want is to get the wrong body back,” Cahill told Al Jazeera.
“It’s a challenge of procedures versus culture … I think the message has got through but sometimes in moments of grief it’s totally understandable that the frustration still continues.”
The Coronial Services of New Zealand declined to comment when contacted by Al Jazeera on Tuesday.