Chinese mortuary uses 3D printing to help rebuild the faces of accident victims

Guangzhou's morgue is using 3D printing to repair the bodies that are damaged during accidents.
PHOTO: Lianhe Zaobao

A mortuary in southern China has started using 3D printing technology to restore the faces of accident victims before their funerals.

Traditionally, Chinese mourners prefer open casket funerals where they can pay their last respects to the dead face-to-face, but accidents such as fires and road crashes often leave the deceased badly disfigured, compounding the grief of their families.

But now the Guangzhou Funeral Service Centre has started using the technology to reconstruct the faces of the dead based on their photographs.

One embalmer at the mortuary, surnamed Liu, said that in the past they had struggled to make an accurate reconstruction of their facial features.

"We are not professional sculptors, we had only the deceased's pictures to look at, and tried our best to make it look similar to the real person," he told Southern Daily, a local newspaper.

He recalled one attempt to rebuild the face of a man killed in a road accident and said his hands were shaking so badly "I couldn't even hold the tools steady".

The mortuary started testing the new technique last year, first practising by making models of its employees' faces based on their photographs.

A portrait photo of 12 million pixels or above helps to improve the accuracy of the process and the reconstruction process is made easier when mortuary staff have pictures taken from multiple different angles.

Using these photos, the mortuary staff first make a model of the deceased's face from plastic, and then use this to build a second model using silica gel.

This can then be used to make a mask that resembles the texture and colour of human skin and, once hair and make up are added, it can be placed over the dead person's face.

"Usually it's harder to make a mask for the elderly as they have more wrinkles," Liu said.

The 3D printing service was launched in early April, the start of the annual tomb-sweeping season where Chinese people traditionally pay tribute to dead family members and friends.

Although the technology can help improve the accuracy and speed of the reconstruction work - a job that used to take around 30 days to finish can now be done in 10 - traditional craftsmanship is still required to make sure all the details of the face are represented accurately.

Li Zhijian, the deputy director of Guangzhou Funeral Service Centre, said on average, it handles around 35,000 bodies a year - of which around 30 need reconstruction work.

"Although the number is not large, every successful reconstruction is a great comfort to the family members, and it is also the best way to show respect for the deceased."

While Chinese law says the dead have to be cremated, a funeral is usually held to allow people to bid farewell to their loved ones beforehand.

This article was first published in South China Morning Post