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Journal of Intercultural Studies
ISSN: 0725-6868 (Print) 1469-9540 (Online) Journal homepage: http://www.tandfonline.com/loi/cjis20
Uncertain Belongings: Absent Mourning, Burial,
and Post-mortem Repatriations at the External
Border of the EU in Spain
To cite this article: Gerhild Perl (2016) Uncertain Belongings: Absent Mourning, Burial, and Post-
mortem Repatriations at the External Border of the EU in Spain, Journal of Intercultural Studies,
37:2, 195-209, DOI: 10.1080/07256868.2016.1141758
To link to this article: https://doi.org/10.1080/07256868.2016.1141758
Published online: 08 Apr 2016.
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Uncertain Belongings: Absent Mourning, Burial, and Post-
mortem Repatriations at the External Border of the EU in Spain
Institute of Social Anthropology, University of Bern, Bern, Switzerland
Since the mid-1980s, migrants from North African and sub-Saharan
countries have irregularly crossed the Strait of Gibraltar in the hope
of a better future for themselves and their families. Travelling in
small, poorly equipped boats without experienced captains has
cost the lives of myriad border-crossers. Exploring the junction of
death and belonging, I ﬁrst open a discussion about the
enigmatic relation between a dead body and a dead person and
argue for the importance of the physical presence of the body for
mourning. Second, I show how the anonymity of dead border-
crossers and their uncertain belongings are generated, concealed,
or rewritten. Following the story of an undertaker, I third examine
post-mortem border crossings. Depicting the power relations
within identiﬁcation processes, I outline the ambiguity of the term
belonging by emphasising the constitutive signiﬁcance of
personal belongings such as clothes to restore a person’s identity.
Reﬂecting on the ethical relationships which different actors
(including the researcher) undertake with the deceased, I aim at
gaining a better understanding of the multiple belongings of
dead border-crossers found on Spanish shores.
Belonging; mourning; post-
mortem treatment; border
A white wall in-between recesses, Spanish graves situated side-by-side and one above the
other. They are called nichos: above-ground alcoves decorated with artiﬁcial ﬂowers and
covered by headstones. Most of them say a name, a date, and an epitaph. I walk up and
down the paths between the walls where the cofﬁns are inserted, searching for hints of
the presumed ﬁnal resting places of deceased border-crossers at cemeteries on the
Spanish Side of the Strait of Gibraltar. So far, I have found nichos with different inscrip-
tions: Inmigrante de Marruecos (immigrant from Morocco), desconocido (unknown), and
restos (remains). Some nichos simply have a cross, accompanied by a date and a number,
scratched into toxic ﬁbre cement; some have scarcely decipherable judicial abbreviations
written on bare surfaces with pale green chalk, which easily fades. And other burial sites
are not even identiﬁable as graves. I stand in front of a white, neutral, blank wall. If a cem-
etery worker had not told me, I would never have imagined that 10 embalmed bodies are
buried behind it. They are victims from a shipwreck in 2003 at the Western coast of
© 2016 Taylor & Francis
CONTACT Gerhild Perl email@example.com Institute of Social Anthropology, University of Bern, Postfach
999, Lerchenweg 36, S204, CH-3000 Bern 9, Bern, Switzerland
JOURNAL OF INTERCULTURAL STUDIES, 2016
VOL. 37, NO. 2, 195–209
Andalusia. They should have been repatriated but due to difﬁculties in the identiﬁcation
process the mortal remains are still in Spain.
The cemeteries do not have a standardised way of marking the graves of the unknown,
and the inscriptions differ widely –as do estimates of the numbers of the dead. It is almost
impossible to evaluate how many people have died since irregular migration to Europe
increased in the late 1980s. Available tallies vary greatly and should be approached with
caution. Last and Spijkerboer (2014, p. 85) argue that the variation in the number of
border-related deaths results from the different interests pursued by different actors
and on the paucity of available data from the maritime border zones of the EU. The
number of unauthorised crossings –and by extension, deaths –at the Estrecho (Strait
of Gibraltar) increased after Spain entered the Schengen Area in 1991 and introduced
visa requirements for Moroccan citizens (Alscher 2005, Ferrer-Gallardo 2008, Last and
Spijkerboer 2014). Since the installation of the national surveillance system SIVE (Siste-
maIntegrado de Vigilancia Exterior) between 2003 and 2008, and bilateral agreements
between Spain and Morocco as well as West African countries, crossings became more dif-
ﬁcult (Ferrer-Gallardo 2008, Andersson 2014). Yet, tightened border control does not lead
to a decrease in illegalised border crossings or the prevention of death but instead results in
the displacement of migratory routes and in an increasing number of people who die
(Grant 2011, p. 140).
In this article, I attempt to disentangle the multifaceted and ambiguous be/longing,
actions, and politics that emerge in the treatment of dead bodies. To understand belonging
after death, I ﬁrst question how we can think about the concrete presence of dead bodies
and their rather nebulous absence. I argue that the absence of bodies evokes uncertainties
about the truth, circumstances, and whereabouts of the death of a person and forecloses
grieving, whereas their physical presence provides answers and thus has the potential to
relieve and pacify the bereaved. Further, I reﬂect on the ethics of research and writing
in this area. Second, I emphasise the actual whereabouts of the bodies by exploring how
their national and religious belongings are displayed and visualised at Spanish cemeteries.
Third, I discuss post-mortem repatriations as a complex, contested, and contradictory
social ﬁeld. Following the story of an undertaker, I examine the extent to which border-
related deaths inﬂuence and shape feelings and actions of local people living in the
border area and I draw a comparison between the personal engagement of the undertaker
and the ethnographer. Finally, I conclude that the analysis of multiple and uncertain
belongings of the dead, which I discuss throughout the article, needs to form part of
the ethical demand for identiﬁcation.
For my research
I have conducted ﬁeldwork in Southern Spain and I have undertaken
extended ﬁeld trips to Morocco in 2012, 2014, and 2015. I have traced and followed the
paths of the deceased and the stories about them through multi-sited ethnography
(Marcus 1995). The core of my methodological approach has encompassed participant
observation, informal talks, and semi-structured interviews with border-crossers, ceme-
tery workers, undertakers, police ofﬁcers, NGO members, judges, lawyers, local politicians,
human rights and Christian activists, representatives of Islamic communities, people who
live in the border area, and families of deceased border-crossers. It is important to note
that most of the interviewees preferred to be identiﬁed by their real names (sometimes
with, sometimes without surname) and thus become visible in their professions,
196 G. PERL
evaluations, feelings, and thoughts. If not speciﬁed otherwise, their real names are used in
Present bodies and the absence of the absence
Living in transnational settings, migrants have relations beyond national, geographical,
and cultural borders and boundaries. Mobility, interconnectedness, and multiple belong-
ings in various social ﬁelds shape their everyday practices (Basch et al.1994, p. 7, Strasser
2009a,2009b, p. 74). To understand the complexity of multiple belongings and the speciﬁc
forms of networking and intervention, the social anthropologist Sabine Strasser suggests
‘using the notion of belonging as a mode of thinking about how people get along and
how various forms of being and longing are articulated’(2009c, p. 187; see also Probyn
1996, p. 5). Further, Strasser (2009a:31–32) points out that belonging signiﬁes both,
being and longing. While the former refers to the ‘concrete presence and experience’of
a person, the latter expresses ‘desire and imagination’.
The term being is a complex and challenging word to think within the context of a
person’s death. The dead are present as corpses and yet they are not anymore. Corpses
have eyes, but they don’t look at us, they have mouths, but remain voiceless, they have
hands, but they don’t touch –in other words, corpses seem to neglect any relation with
the living, as the philosopher Macho (1987) suggests when he deﬁnes death as the irrevoc-
able rupture of communication. Macho (1987, p. 409) speaks about a ‘conundrum of the
corpses’to comprehend their intransigent resistance towards any kind of social obligation
and to sketch the ‘inexplicable duplication’, which consists in the fact that a dead body is
and is not identical with the dead person. Corpses and their very concrete presence rep-
resent the former person as ‘the presence of an absence’(Macho 2000, p. 99). The dead
is and is not at the same time.
Macho’s phenomenological approach helps to understand the unsettling, inscrutable,
and ambiguous character of corpses and sheds light on the puzzling junction between the
dead body and the dead person. But exploring the quandaries between belonging and
death, I prefer to think of the dead body as constitutive of social relations, rather than
indicative of their absence. Inspired by the social anthropologist Magaña (2011, pp.
159–160) and her contention that a dead body and its display contain a ‘performative
quality’and her idea ‘that in death, the [ …] body bears the possibility to resignify
social, political, and spatial relations’, I am interested in how different actors relate
ethically to the presence of a dead, unknown body. Therefore, the analysis of people’s
speech becomes crucial. The anthropologist Jackson (2013, p. 4) uses the notion ‘arrest-
ing images’to point out an ontologising tendency in migration studies when addressing
(living) migrants as a collective ‘them’. This form of ‘social and discursive violence [ …]
reduces the other to a mere object –a drudge, a victim, a number’(Jackson 2013, p. 5).
In the context of my ﬁeldwork, public discourses, academic research and writing as well
as day-to-day speech often refer to unidentiﬁed dead migrants as anonymous corpses or
cadavers –a discursive practice that disguises the dead person as well as his or her
belonging and reduces the dead to a mere body –a causality, a fatality, a statistic. In
my view, exploring the belonging of a dead body forces us to think of the body as the
representation of the former person rather than as a mere object. The phenomenologist
argues that the objectifying signiﬁcance of the terms ‘corpse’(Leiche) and
JOURNAL OF INTERCULTURAL STUDIES 197
‘cadaver’(Kadaver) creates not only an ‘emotional distance’but also denies the personal
history and dignity of the dead.
A striking example that follows this objectifying practice is an interdisciplinary study
with a strong forensic emphasis carried out in the US–Mexican borderlands. The study
aimed at documenting the impact of the local ecology for ‘the process of corpse decompo-
sition and taphonomy’(Beck et al.2015, p. 19). To do so, three pigs ‘dressed in clothes
similar to those worn by migrants’(Beck et al.2015, p. 12) are killed and left in the
Sonoran desert to study the changing state of the cadavers. In this way the researchers
draw a comparison with the physical fate of dead border-crossers: such an investigation
is characterised by great emotional distance and driven by a scientiﬁc urge to rationalise
death. Not only is the killing of animals ethically questionable, so too is the researchers’
disregard for personhood and belonging in death: the death of a person becomes the
same as the death of a (killed) animal. In contrast, other studies dealing with the fate of
dead bodies in the Sonoran desert emphasise migrants’personhood. To cite just a few,
Regan (2010) focuses on the lived experiences of the bereaved, border-crossers, activists,
and state actors; Reinecke (2013) draws attention to the impact of complex and excluding
identiﬁcation procedures for families; and Magaña (2008,2011) examines the ‘political
afterlife of dead bodies’.
Being confronted with border-related death, it is important to remember those who
have disappeared: they have friends and families who miss them, who wonder about
their whereabouts, who hope that they are still alive, and who long to know what has hap-
pened to them. In Morocco an Association of Friends and Families of the Victims of Clan-
destine Immigration (AFVIC) has been founded and the monthly television programme
Moukhtafoun (The Disappeared) announces details of missing persons in order to ﬁnd
them. Tunisian families whose relatives went missing in the attempt to cross the border
to Italy have also formed an association demanding to know what exactly happened to
their loved ones (Moorehead 2014). These initiatives show how people try to get along
with the uncertainty of death and how the longing for knowledge is articulated (Strasser
2009c, p. 187). But most families remain in a state of not knowing what happened to
their relatives and not knowing how to demand the right to know.
Grant (2011, p. 142) points out that basic human rights are clearly violated at the EU’s
external borders. These rights –established in international humanitarian law as formu-
lated by the UN Human Rights Council –include: restoring the identity of the deceased,
the ‘clariﬁcation of the fate of a missing person’, the duty to inform families, the ‘restor-
ation of family links’, and the repatriation of mortal remains. These rights however are not
applied to illegalised migrants (2011, p. 143).
In the light of the uncertainty of a person’s fate and belonging, I reconﬁgure Macho’s
notion of the ‘presence of the absence’as the absence of the absence. Many border-crossers
are lost at sea and their mortal remains will never be found, others are washed up at the
shores or discovered in the water. As I have noticed during my ﬁeldwork, although DNA-
samples are taken from these bodies, the families of the deceased are rarely informed of the
death. The dead remain missing; uncertainties and fears survive and may agonise the
living. A dead body materialises not only the absence of the former person, but proves
the certainty of death. Being deprived of the body and/or the knowledge of its demise
keeps the uncertainty of death alive, and therefore the absence of the absence means the
absence of the certainty of death.
198 G. PERL
If families are given notice but cannot see, touch, wash, or feel the body, they experience
the concrete absence of the body and this inﬂuences grieving and mourning processes tre-
mendously: they do not only grieve the demise, but also the loss of the mortal remains and
the non-realisation of appropriate practices (Weiss-Krejci 2013, p. 290). The absent body
becomes the subject of longing and desire. The philosopher Butler (2004, p. xiv) identiﬁes
a‘differential allocation of grievability’that make some lives worth protecting, saving, and
mourning, while other lives remain unacknowledged, unprotected, unremembered, and
ungrieved and thus, they are not apprehended as living in the ﬁrst place. Butler’s obser-
vation offers the possibility to consider grief not only as a personal matter and private
feeling but also as a phenomenon that helps to understand the making and governing
of precarious lives (and deaths). The political dimension of public mourning could give
back personhood to the deceased in public space and discourses.
Recovering, identifying, informing, conﬁrming, and repatriating are fundamental pro-
cedures to bring closure to families and friends. Knowing about the death of a person is
not only necessary for mourning and pacifying death but is also important for going on
with life. Additionally, the issuing of a death certiﬁcate may be a necessary legal ground
for inheritance and re-marriage (Grant 2011, p. 146). Yet, most of these bodies remain
unidentiﬁed and thus their families are often condemned to a state of not knowing.
Emphasising the whereabouts of these bodies at local cemeteries in Spain, I will now
examine the intersection of burial practices with national, genealogical as well as religious
Buried the Spanish way
The research for this article was conducted in the Spanish border town of Algeciras –a
name derived from Arabic Al-Jeezira al-Khadra (the green island) –and the Campo de
Gibraltar, the town’s surrounding area. People who live in the area remember with
sorrow the many border-crossers who drowned in their waters. However, this was in
the past: ‘Today it does not happen anymore, not so much, this was at the end of the
1990s until 2005 or 2006, maybe, today it happens in Italy’, says a cemetery gardener
who I met at the old graveyard in Algeciras. Most of the people I talk to are well aware
of changing migratory routes. Cemetery workers, especially, notice a shift: ‘It is not like
before, before every week, every day we buried an immigrant who drowned’(Diego
Several of these dead from ‘before’are buried at local municipal or Catholic cemeteries
close to the place of recovery, where inscriptions, ﬁling, book-keeping, and ways of com-
memorating differ greatly.
Kisko, a gravedigger, takes me around the Catholic cemetery of Tarifa. We stop in front
of two nichos. Both of them say in black letters on white stone: Inmigrantede Marruecos
2009. Kisko looks at me and says that he buried these two men. He assures me: ‘They
were not from Morocco’.‘But why does it say immigrant from Morocco?’, I ask. He
shrugs his shoulders: ‘The headstones are standardised’. Both bodies are unidentiﬁed:
neither their nationality nor their creed is known. Kisko’s assurance that they are not Mor-
occans is based on his observations prior to burial of their physical appearance ‘which was
not Arabic’. Furthermore, he explains that in 2009 Moroccans no longer crossed the Estre-
cho in boats. Indeed, nowadays most border-crossers originate from sub-Saharan
countries and therefore it is easily possible that the two dead men were not Moroccan.
JOURNAL OF INTERCULTURAL STUDIES 199
Leaving the cemetery I began to wonder if the inscription Inmigrante de Marruecos
solely indicates a Moroccan nationality or if it could perhaps refer to sub-Saharan
migrants who took the boat in Morocco to cross to Spain. When I showed the photo of
the headstones to Spanish native speakers, they consistently agreed on Morocco as the
national identity of the dead. Thus the headstones inscribe a misleading national belong-
ing of the dead. And since the great majority of the Moroccan population is Muslim, the
inscriptions also imply an association with the Islamic faith, which may or may not be
true. According to Kisko, a small Christian organisation organised and paid for the ‘stan-
dardised headstones’, yet, he could not say why they did not organise new headstones. The
anthropologist Verdery (1999, p. 29) stresses the speechlessness of dead bodies, which
allows the living to rewrite history and to use dead bodies as (political) symbols by empha-
sising selective parts of their stories and by putting words into their mouths. At the cem-
etery in Tarifa, the story of those two men has been rewritten by assigning a national
identity which is highly doubtful and by insinuating a religious belonging which is in
When I phoned the person who initiated the headstones and asked him for a meeting,
he refused to talk to me: ‘It is a private matter’, he said and hung up. Yet, death at the
border and the ways of commemorating it are not private but rather political matters.
As Magaña (2008, p. 108) states, border-related deaths are not merely private losses
because their recovery, identiﬁcation, and the ways they are made visible or not in
public space enable or foreclose not just mourning, but also state recognition and political
claims. Although I do not know why the Christian organisation decided on these two
headstones, I assume that they wanted the death of those two men to be recognised
and acknowledged. But even if their intention was to make them visible in public space
and to commemorate them, the way they did so is problematic. To afﬁx headstones
suggesting a national identity which in fact is unknown underlines the precarious and
extremely disenfranchised status of (dead) unidentiﬁed migrants. Yet, one should keep
in mind that people who live in the area and who do not want to ignore the migratory
deaths in their midst are overburdened with the question of how to proceed properly
with the dead. In talks with cemetery workers, a strong emphasis on the equal treatment
of dead migrants and anybody else is often expressed. According to Diego, who has been
working at the cemetery in Algeciras for 15 years:
How they die, it is sad, very sad, but there is also something that draws my attention …the
good in all this bad …you treat everybody equally …everybody receives the same examin-
ations, the same treatment, the same autopsy, the same professionalism, the same effort.
An immigrant who dies drowning in the Estrecho receives the same treatment like a multi-
millionaire who drowns during surﬁng in Tarifa. And both die in the Estrecho, that’s curious
…The circumstances of death are different but the professionalism is the same, the expenses
are the same.
Diego stresses the consistent equality as politically correct and morally permissible, and
indeed, at ﬁrst it was comforting to hear him say that. But a second look reveals that this
equality evokes conﬂicted meanings, since it is determined by national, cultural, and reli-
gious norms and regimes in the receiving country: it seems to me that to ‘treat everybody
equally’means that in most of the cases everybody is treated either as an atheist or a
Catholic. People who never lived but died in Spain usually do not have anybody who is
200 G. PERL
morally qualiﬁed to decide on the how, when, and where of the burial and thus they are
subjected to dominant local burial norms. Restrictive visa policies prevent families to come
to identify the body, to perform the burial, or to repatriate the dead. Furthermore, survi-
vors who travelled with the deceased often neither report a missing person nor identify a
body because they fear deportation or other consequences of their ‘immigration position’
(Grant 2015, p. 12).
Both the rewriting of a dead person’s identity as well as the claim for equal treatment
obscure not only the uncertain and diverse belongings of the dead but also social inequal-
ities produced by the EU’s immigration and border policies. The continued policy of
closure prevents people from entering the Schengen territory legally and forces them to
take life-threatening routes to bypass controls. Drowning, hyperthermia, and suffocation
are generally considered to be the main causes of death at sea. Yet, following Magaña
(2008, p. 110), the pronouncement of natural causes of death forms part of the ‘state’s
attempt to delimit understandings of violence around these deaths [ …] displac[ing]
the possibility of culpability outside of the state itself’. The state rejects not only culpability
and accountability for the circumstances of death, but also refuses to take responsibility for
the fate of the deceased.
In conversations with people who had crossed the border many reported that faith
forms a profound part of their life. Faith is not only a source of strength, consolation,
and hope but also indicates a person’s belonging. Since religious denomination is not
determined and not always possible to determine, the question of how to bury a person
properly and in a digniﬁed way is overwhelming for local actors. Not just undertakers
and cemetery workers but also local politicians complain that the Spanish Government
leaves them alone with the treatment of the dead, especially those who are Muslims.
Even if religious belonging of the deceased were to be known and if somebody were to
demand a respectful burial, the question of how and where to bury deceased Muslims
properly is a contested issue in the Campo de Gibraltar area. In 1992, Spain approved a
law that imposes the concession of separate sections for Muslims in municipal cemeteries
and in Andalusia inhumation without a cofﬁn has been possible since 2001 (Tarrés et al.
2012, pp. 7–9). Yet, the Campo de Gibraltar area is not only devoid of an Islamic cemetery
but also of separate sections for Muslims in municipal cemeteries. Visiting the new and
non-confessional municipal cemetery in Algeciras, I noticed a strong dominance of Catho-
lic burial traditions. Furthermore, the cemetery does not offer speciﬁc Islamic burial ser-
vices: inhumation without a cofﬁn is impossible, graves are not facing towards Mecca, and
they are not perpetual so may be re-used. Representatives of Islamic Communities in Alge-
ciras state that Muslims with Moroccan background either bury their dead at the private
Islamic cemetery, 70 miles East of Algeciras in Fuengirola, where Islamic burial practices
are accomplished, or they transfer them to Morocco.
There exists a signiﬁcant diversity regarding proper Muslim burial practices in Europe
among scholars and also among members of Islamic communities. According to the
Islamic scholar Habib Rauf (2014:34–37), a burial in a Muslim country is not required
by Islamic teaching but the fulﬁlment of Islamic burial practices is; furthermore, post-
mortem repatriations contradict the Qur’an. Yet, Omar Samaoli, a gerontologist who
has paid signiﬁcant attention to the end-of-life practices of North African migrants in
France (2007, pp. 129–130), notes the permissibility of post-mortem repatriations in
the jurisprudence of the Maliki rite –one of the four major legal traditions in Sunni
JOURNAL OF INTERCULTURAL STUDIES 201
Islam –which is dominant in Morocco. In conversations I have had with Moroccan
families from the Middle Atlas whose deceased relatives are buried in Spain, the desire
to ‘bring them home’was striking. It seems that the longing for repatriation is motivated
more by emotional and cultural be/longings than by religious ones, and can be understood
as a form of ‘genealogical reconstruction’(Tarrés et al.2015:9–12) that paciﬁes the
bereaved and reinstalls belonging after death.
But families do not always desire to repatriate the dead. Studies concerned with the fate
of deceased border-crossers in the Sonoran desert show that families who had immigrated
to the USA prefer to bury the dead in US-American soil (Regan 2010, p. xviii, Reinecke
2013). In transnational settings the question of to whom a dead body belongs is crucial.
Families often articulate the desire to bury the dead close to them; they want to be able
to visit the grave and to mourn the deceased. But in situations where post-mortem repa-
triations or other transnational post-mortem transfers are not accomplished by the gov-
ernments concerned –be that in the countries of origin, transit or destination –
deceased border-crossers are buried close to the place of recovery. In Spain this generally
means they are subjected to hegemonic local burial norms and are literally incorporated in
the (undesired) receiving country. Yet, for a minority of Moroccan border-crossers, repa-
triation has been effected thanks to the initiative of a local undertaker, as I will discuss in
the following section.
Between business and engagement
Against the narrative presented above, one person who does take religious belonging into
account is the Spanish undertaker Martín Zamora. Focusing on his story, I will discuss the
power relations inherent in identiﬁcation processes. In so doing, I attempt to elucidate the
ambiguity of the term ‘uncertain belongings’and show how border-related deaths have
inﬂuenced and shaped the work, feelings, and thoughts of the undertaker.
I met Martín Zamora in Ceuta, the autonomous Spanish enclave on the African con-
tinent, where he is building a new funeral parlour with the intention of providing under-
taker services to the Muslim population. Even though Ceuta has an Islamic cemetery and a
large Muslim population, no funeral parlour offers speciﬁcally Islamic services. Martín
Zamora has known the funeral business since he was 14 years old. Coming from
Murcia, an autonomous region in the Southeast of Spain, he settled down in Los
Barrios, a small town next to Algeciras and opened a funeral parlour, a so-called tanatorio
with its own morgue. This was at the end of 1998 when the Estrecho was still one of the
most important migration routes towards Europe.
Until he picked up the ﬁrst bodies in 1999, he was not aware of border-related deaths in
Spain, as he recalls:
I had a lot of questions …these were persons without identiﬁcation and they (the authorities)
told me that they should be buried in the area where they were recovered. I found it very sad,
persons who must have a name …family who certainly wants to know something about
them. I wanted to do something …locate the family and give a name to the deceased …I
wanted to identify them.
Martín Zamora had not expected the sudden confrontation with the deaths of dozens of
unknown border-crossers. But his empathy with the survivors was not the only motivation
202 G. PERL
for identifying and repatriating them. At ﬁrst, his motivation was both compassionate and
As a businessman, let’s be realistic, this is the ﬁrst thought that comes into mind. Later it
became another thing, but in the beginning, it was this …if I have twenty bodies here and
I succeed in identifying them, somebody will pay for the transfer of the dead …of course,
later you notice that these transfers you have to pay, all of it. Because the families did not
have the money and nobody wanted to know anything about it, even if you have located a
father and you tell him, look I have your son, and you tell him that this costs 3000 or
3500 Euro and he doesn’t have the money …you can’t say, I’m sorry, but I won’t bring
your son, he will be buried in Algeciras. So, what we did a lot of times, we put in the
money, we paid all the expenses, and we repatriated the dead.
Martín Zamora and his co-workers not only repatriated people whose families could
not afford the expenses. Over time, many Moroccans got to know and to trust him,
which in turn was good for his business. Furthermore, he hired Arabic-speaking staff,
offered Islamic burial services, and built a mosque in the tanatorio. Eighty to ninety per
cent of his everyday business consisted in the treatment and repatriation of deceased
migrants of Moroccan origin. But when the economic crisis hit Spain many migrants
and possible clients left and thus his business suffered and the money for the free repatria-
tions dried up. In 2013, he ﬁnally sold the tanatorio.
Martín Zamora made an exceptional effort to identify deceased border-crossers. The
ﬁrst pre-condition for repatriating a dead body and for clarifying a dead person’s belong-
ing is to know the name and the place of residency of the deceased and the family. Yet, as
Grant (2011: 147–148) stipulates, one consequence of illegalised border crossing consists
in the fact that many migrants travel without identity documents or use forged papers and
thus their deaths often remain anonymous. Furthermore, police do not make enough
efforts to identify an unknown border-crosser. As Martín Zamora puts it:
We were confronted with the handicap that nobody dealt with the problem …the courts, the
Spanish police –well, those who actually should worry about ﬁnding the families, they didn’t
do it. So what I did was, I tried to compile all the information I could get and I searched the
personal belongings of the dead …I tell you, as we became more experienced we ﬁgured out
that the dead often had photocopies sewn in their clothes, but above all they had some phone
number of a friend or relative in Europe …so we began to examine the dead more carefully,
let’s say, we made a more exhaustive search of the clothes and we collected all the information
we could get …well, we always tried to identify the dead, yes.
In Spain, the forensic departments of the police and the Guardia Civil are in charge of
identiﬁcation and Interpol is responsible for communicating with the country of origin in
order to exchange data. Recently, Spanish police seem to be making more thorough efforts
to identify a dead person. A policeman from the forensic department in Madrid stated that
his colleagues needed to ‘try harder’to identify deceased border-crossers, on account of the
war in Syria since 2011. This was because, in his view, many ‘educated refugees who have
money’try to cross the border to Spain and he is convinced that the families of those who
have died will make a fuss in the future: ‘They will ask for answers’. For him, the duty to
identify derives from the possible problems, which ‘educated and wealthy refugees’might
cause in the future. This statement contrasts with most of the declarations of other police
ofﬁcers I spoke to. Most of them stress that markers of differentiation such as the skin
colour of a person, class, the country of origin, and legal status do not inﬂuence their
JOURNAL OF INTERCULTURAL STUDIES 203
work in any way. Since 1999, the extraction of DNA-samples forms a standardised pro-
cedure and is considered the most reliable source for identifying unknown bodies. But
solely extracting DNA from the corpses without comparing it to relatives’DNA does
not lead to successful identiﬁcation. Although I am aware of one case in which Spanish
and Moroccan authorities collaborated to extract and compare DNA-samples, cross
border agreements and procedures to identify and return the dead are not developed.
This contrasts with the well-established cooperation between Spain and Morocco as
well as Spain and West African countries to tighten border control and to prevent
people from crossing (Andersson 2014, Last and Spijkerboer 2014). While a lot of effort
is expended to identify and potentially repatriate undocumented, living migrants, dead
border-crossers remain largely unidentiﬁed and thus not repatriated (Zagaria 2011).
Martín Zamora points to emotional and moral difﬁculties that emerge when authorities
mainly rely on DNA-samples. Following his experiences, some judges only issue approvals
for repatriation if the DNA of the body matches with a relative, and they ignore identiﬁ-
cations based on the recognition of the body or the clothes. He remembers a drowned
border-crosser from Morocco who was ‘completely identiﬁed’by his brothers, who
were Moroccan with an Italian nationality.
The brothers identiﬁed the body, but the judge did not approve …but the corpse was so
characteristic because an arm was missing …but the DNA was negative …the judge never
authorised the repatriation, we had to put up with it and bury him in Los Barrios. In
other words, there were cases with failures regarding the DNA, but we do not know if this
was an administrative failure or a mistake, or maybe he was not the biological brother.
But for them, he was their brother.
The question where and to whom this man belongs is not uncertain at all. Not trusting
the word of the brothers, but intransigently relying on genetics –even if the possibility of a
mix-up is known –demonstrates how biopolitical power regulates, manages, and organ-
ises the fate of a body. Biomedicine separates the self from the body (Sharp 2009, p. 290)
and thus the body is reduced to a biological object, which becomes completely detached
from the person. Additionally, the arbitrary decision of the judge and his powerful pos-
ition underlines the disenfranchised status of the dead migrant and his relatives. The
one-armed man and nine others are victims from a shipwreck in 2003 and they are
buried behind the white, neutral, empty wall, which I mentioned in the introduction.
Their graves are not recognisable as burial sites: nothing indicates that somebody is
resting there. Albeit in vain, the brothers were able to come to Spain to try to identify
the deceased, thanks to their Italian nationality.
Dependent on visa policies and the benevolence of the judges, a body may or may not
be repatriated. Fortunately, other judges have supported Martín Zamora’s endeavour and
allowed him to take clothes and personal belongings of deceased border-crossers to
Morocco, in order to ﬁnd their families. He, his brother, and co-workers went to the
market places of the villages from which they thought the deceased had come from.
They exhibited the clothes and other belongings the dead carried with them and waited
for somebody to recognise the things. In this way they could identify most of the deceased.
Spanish authorities often do not acknowledge the value of the personal belongings for
identiﬁcation processes and their main approach to identifying a person is based on DNA.
Yet, Martín Zamora’s examination of the deceased’s clothes, his struggle to bring their
204 G. PERL
belongings back to Morocco in order to trace their origins and identities exempliﬁes the
contested identity of the dead body. Authorities seek to reveal the identity and the national
belonging due to genetic procedures performed on corpses. However, the belongings of
the dead –their personal effects, clothes, assets, and possessions they travel with –
reveal the dead person. In other words, a corpse becomes a dead person who belongs to
somebody and thus the personal belongings of the dead reconstitute the national, reli-
gious, and genealogical belonging of the dead.
Due to his motivation to identify and repatriate deceased border-crossers, Martín
Zamora became a well-known man in and beyond Spain, especially in the Tadla-Azilal
region in the Middle Atlas of Morocco, from where many people have emigrated since
the 1990s. He has gained an ambiguous fame over the last 15 years. Local and national
newspapers have published articles about him and his business, and a feature movie has
been made based on his story. His profession and his dedication to repatriate deceased
border-crossers have not only evoked support, but also sceptical voices. In my interviews,
representatives of NGOs criticised the specialisation and professionalism of his business as
a way to earn money and representatives of Moroccan migrant associations disapproved of
the elevated costs for post-mortem repatriations. As mentioned before, many families
could not cover the expenses and thus Martín Zamora tried, sometimes very successfully,
to receive payment from different state institutions.
Business with the dead is inherently ambiguous and a person who makes his or her
living from the dead tends to become suspicious. Martín Zamora himself is very aware
of this ambiguity. Sometimes people allege that he is pleased about the death of a
person –an insinuation that he vehemently rejects: ‘To be good in what you are doing
doesn’t mean to be happy when someone dies!’Indeed, he became very personally affected
by the extreme conditions of death in a dispossessed context and during the interviews he
repeats various times: ‘Everybody has his own story, every dead has his own story’. Martín
Zamora not only listened to these stories, he lived them with the families and he became
part of them. The tragedies of unauthorised border crossings and the mourning of the sur-
vivors touched him: ‘I got involved in every way, I even became a Muslim’. And he
acknowledges that only a Muslim is allowed to touch a dead Muslim, as his work
entails. Yet even if he did not say it explicitly, it seems that the appreciation he received
once he identiﬁed and repatriated a dead person was overwhelming and spiritually fulﬁll-
ing. In addition to that, he has become an important and above all trusted contact for those
crossing the border:
Sometimes they called me from a patera
for help, from the patera, because they feared that it
would sink. I had to inform the Guardia Civil and they asked me, how I knew. I told them,
that they called me, they were probably family of a dead one and maybe somebody told them:
‘Look, write down this phone number, this man will help you’…and immigrants came to the
tanatorio asking for help …we helped somehow, in other words, we got involved, very, very
He did not seek or ask for this involvement, but he was torn between personal attach-
ment and business, and thus it just somehow happened to him. The responsibility has been
tremendous and when I ask him about the limits of his engagement, he simply answers:
‘There are no limits’, as if he did not have another choice: ‘You live their stories with
them, they become somehow a part of yourself’.
JOURNAL OF INTERCULTURAL STUDIES 205
Listening to Martín Zamora, it is remarkable that he primarily uses the words ‘person’
(persona) and ‘the dead’(muerto/s) when he talks about the deceased and he only speaks
about ‘bodies’and ‘corpses’when he explicitly refers to his business or to forensic exam-
inations. As I mentioned before, our speech reveals something about our attachments and
detachments and how we ethically relate to the dead. Thus, it is not surprising when
talking about his business that he unconsciously reinforces his identity as a businessman
and creates an emotional distance by relating in a rather calculating manner to dead
bodies. Through Martín Zamora’s story we can observe how an undertaker gets involved
in the political, economic, and emotional dimension of migratory death and how he has
become a connecting link between the dead body and the bereaved.
Doing ﬁeldwork in a border zone where death under extreme conditions occurs and
seeking a conversation with the living, with those who have successfully crossed the
border as well as with the bereaved, the ethnographer might also become a connecting
link. The anthropologist and director of a human rights organisation Reinecke (2013) out-
lines her search for a missing husband and father by illustrating excluding power mech-
anisms of identiﬁcation systems and technologies, bureaucratic obstacles, and errors in
data collection for families of deceased migrants. Thanks to her, the bereaved ﬁnally
gained certainty over the death and could bury the dead. During ﬁeldwork, I myself
have become a source of knowledge for families regarding burials, resting places, memor-
ials, and the conﬁrmation of the certainty of death. The undertaker and the ethnographer
investigate the death of a person, both seek to know something about the deceased’s life,
both listen with empathy to the stories of the survivors and bereaved, they enter a relation-
ship with them and seek to learn about their experiences and perceptions. The undertaker
and the ethnographer walk a line between personal attachment and self-interest; and often
they enter into professional relationships, which soon become friendships.
In this article, I have focused on various actors who are involved in the post-mortem
reception of deceased border-crossers. I have shown divergent forms of attachment and
detachment among these actors (including the researcher) who are –willingly or not –
connected to border-related deaths. My experiences in talking with ‘experts of death’
and their sensitive and respectful way of speaking have led me to the assumption that
their work does not turn into an indifferent routine. A dead person –known or
unknown –matters. Nevertheless, the ethical question of how one should proceed with
dead border-crossers remains unanswered.
To conclude, I wish to highlight three points I have made in the article and which I
consider to be essential regarding the uncertain and diverse belongings of the dead.
First, exploring the junction of death and belonging (being and longing), I have advocated
a semantic awareness of the depersonalising quality of words such as cadaver and corpse
that deprive the dead of their belonging. At the same time I have shown the importance of
the presence of the dead body for mourning processes and have argued that a dead body –
due to its absence –becomes a subject of longing and desire. Rites of passage and especially
rites of reintegration aim to reunite the living and the dead but if the bereaved do not know
about the death of a loved one, rituals cannot be performed and thus the transition from
life to death is not accompanied in the proper cultural and religious ways.
206 G. PERL
Second, I have shown that the non-identiﬁcation and anonymity of dead border-cross-
ers and thus the uncertainty of their belongings are not ﬁxed but produced in different
ways by different local actors and the state itself. The uncertainty might be generated, con-
cealed, or rewritten. Further, I have argued that the moral claim of equality in the treat-
ments of dead bodies disguises their multiple belongings and the lack of an Islamic
cemetery is not only a disappointing reality for many Muslims living in the Campo de
Gibraltar, but it is also a source of resentments. Intercultural and interreligious nego-
tiations in the border area could enable diversiﬁed and thus more digniﬁed burial practices
and forms of commemoration.
Third, I have highlighted the ambiguity of the term belongings, which includes the
meaning of belonging as religious, emotional, genealogical, and national attachments
and identities, as well as the personal possessions which travel with migrants. These per-
sonal things tell us something about the dead person and they are sometimes successfully
used to trace the identities of the dead. Thus, personal belongings have the power to recon-
stitute the identity of a person.
To deepen our understanding of different ways of identiﬁcation at the border, we need
to ask what identiﬁcation actually means. To do so, we should seek to know who a person
was during his or her lifetime; to ﬁgure out where he or she was coming from or heading
to, to reveal where and to whom a person belongs. In transnational settings, the question
of where a person belongs cannot be easily answered. Family and friends might be dis-
persed across national borders and the person may have more than one home. In this
context the question to whom a person belongs becomes much more relevant. Not trusting
the testimony of a relative, but relying exclusively on biological proof is a violent act that
leaves family and friends left behind with feelings of powerlessness and impotence. It is my
view that the political, ethical, and academic demand for identiﬁcation and post-mortem
repatriation or transfer has to develop a broader understanding of the complexity of mul-
tiple belongings and identiﬁcation processes itself by creating an awareness of power
relations in the context of the treatment, management, and administration of dead
bodies at the border.
I would like to thank Eva Soom Ammann for inviting me to contribute to this special issue and
Alistair Hunter for his thorough reading and constructive comments on the paper. He and
Sabine Strasser shared essential thoughts with me on the ambiguity of the term belongings, I am
truly grateful for that. I would like to extend thanks to the two anonymous reviewers and the Inti-
mate Uncertainties project team: Luisa Piart as well as Veronika Siegl and Julia Rehsmann for feed-
back on earlier versions of this paper. I also wish to express my gratitude to Driss el Hadj and to the
participants of my research.
Notes on contributor
Gerhild Perl is a Research Fellow and PhD student in Social Anthropology at the University of
Bern. She is part of the SNSF-funded research project ‘Intimate Uncertainties. Precarious life
and moral economy across European borders’, directed by Sabine Strasser. Her research focuses
on questions of contested moralities and ethical demands in the context of precarious lives and
violent deaths at the external EU-border in Spain.
JOURNAL OF INTERCULTURAL STUDIES 207
1. A database of numbers derived from ofﬁcial sources is available at http://www.borderdeaths.org/
(see, Last 2015) and the Andalusian human rights organization APDHA publishes annual
reports with death estimates: http://www.apdha.org/.
2. This study is embedded in a larger research project called “Intimate Uncertainties. Precarious
Life and Moral Economy across European Borders”(https://intimateuncertainties.wordpress.
com/), which seeks to understand the making of moral worlds and the governing of precarious
lives in transnational circuits marked by social, political, legal, and economic inequalities. The
project is directed by Sabine Strasser, University of Bern. This work was supported by the Swiss
National Science Foundation (149368).
3. Although Hasse has the German etymology in mind, I believe that his analysis can be easily
applied to English and Spanish.
5. Patera is the Spanish word for a small, wooden boat. Since the emergence of irregular migration
towards Spain via the Mediterranean Sea and Atlantic Ocean, any boat used by border crossers
is now called patera. In the 1980s until the beginnings of 2000, border crossers actually used
wooden boats. Nowadays they generally use zodiacs, big inﬂatable dinghies with a motor, to
cross the Alboran Sea or toys, small inﬂatable dinghies with paddles, to cross the Strait of
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