(c) 2009, Los Angeles Times
HANWANG, China -- Nearly the size of a football field, the oval mound is big enough to show up in satellite photos looking like an earthen UFO that landed on the side of the mountain.
Anywhere from 2,000 to 8,000 bodies are believed to lie within, buried under layers of lime and cement in what might be one of the largest mass graves in China.
In the hot, humid days that followed the May 12, 2008, earthquake, rescue workers digging thousands of bodies out of the wreckage had little time for the rituals that normally accompany death. With morgues overloaded, roads closed and electricity out, there was no way to move or refrigerate bodies. They had to be buried quickly.
The Chinese military took the corpses in trucks by the thousands, burying them on the side of this peak known as "Hero Mountain," after a military cemetery located nearby.
People who live nearby said the burials took place at night, so few know exactly how many are interred there.
"We think it might be 8,000 people, but we don't know who all of them are, and it will be difficult to ever find out," said Zhu Shuicheng, the foreman of a construction crew at the site.
The Hanwang municipality is building a parking lot and widening roads to turn the mound into a proper memorial.
"We want something that shows respect to the spirits who passed away and comforts those who are living," said Wan Young, a spokesman for the Dongqi Co., or Eastern Automobile, which is paying for the construction.
The company operated a factory nearby and lost many workers and family members in the earthquake. Another spokesman said he thought about 2,000 bodies were buried in the mound, about 600 of them company employees.
The earthen oval stretches about 83 yards and is rimmed with a concrete wall. Although many families do not know for sure whether or not their loved ones were buried in the mound, they nevertheless came to pay tribute on April 6, a traditional Chinese holiday for sweeping tombs, leaving flowers, apples and sticks of incense in respect for the dead.