A friend to the dead

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Le Huu Tay from Hue maintains the tombs of the annonymous dead that he has fished out of the sea.

Le Huu Tay has launched his small fishing boat out of the central town of Hue for more than 40 years.

During his many voyages, Tay has spotted the bodies of numerous annonymous kin -- fellow fishermen, lost swimmers and unidentifed bodies -- floating on the tide.

Rather than let them float on, he fishes them out of the water and goes out of his way to provide a proper burial for each and every one. After they are in the ground, he continues to maintain the annonymous graves.

In order to fulfill his grizzly duty, the old man began applying "mam" (fermented seafood) around his nose and mouth to mask the stench of death.

Tay, now around 60, has been dubbed Tay "mam" by his neighbors.

Saving the dead

The old man's unusual relationship with the dead began 25 years ago, when he stumbled across three rotten corpses on Thuan An Beach.

Instead of fishing, Tay spent that day dragging each body off the beach and to a communal cemetery, where he dug their graves.

"The water was rough that night, if I'd set sail, as planned, I don't know what had happened to me," Tay recalled.

He said maybe he was blessed because he did a good thing.

Three days later, the families arrived from the Hai Phong asking after the dead.

Tay dutifully exhumed the bodies for the families.

The bereaved tried to offer him money, but Tay rejected all their offers.

Several years later, they returned and asked him to help them move the remains to their home in the north and Tay obliged.

On another occassion, a group of locals informed him that there was a body under Thuan An Bridge.

Tay rushed to the site and recovered the body. He stood by while the police conducted a forensic investigation and then transported the dead man to the community cemetery for burial.

The body was later identified as having belonged to a man from nearby Quang Tri Province. After failing to get treatment for his contagious disease, he committed suicide.

Curious bystanders fled the cemetery after hearing of the dead man's illness.

Only Tay stayed to bury him.

More than two years later, Tay persuaded the dead man's family to come and take his remains back home.

Anything for a stranger

Tay has done all sorts of things to feed his family.

He's worked as a fisherman, a goat herder, a day laborer and a hired porter. His wife mainly does the housework and he has children who are still in school.

But he is willing to stop whatever he is doing to tend to strangers in need--living or dead.

Recently, he spent VND3.5 million (US$170) to help build a tomb for a stranger.

He never expects anything for his kindness.

His wife Huynh Thi Lai says that Tay and a neighbor named Phuong once saved a group of students from Quang Tri from drowning in the sea.

"After that, [the students] didn't return to say thanks," she said. "Anyway, my husband never bothers if people return his favor or not. He would save anyone in danger, then he'd forget."

Pham Hoang Gia, one of Tay's neighbors, recalled the day that the old man discovered a strange tomb along the shore which was being whipped by strong waves.

So the old man stood holding the tomb up against the waves.

After the storm passed, he moved the tomb to a site near his home and has been taking care of it ever since.

For every strange tomb, he chose a random day to hold the annual death commemoration, Gia said.

Tay has also asked local officials to move threatened coastal tombs inland to protect them from the sea.

Locals say that the old man has saved a few drowning beachgoers and other lost souls who were prepared to drown themselves in the ocean.

One such victim, whom Tay stopped from committing suicide, now says she thinks of Tay as her father.

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