BEIJING — Rural traditions of abandoning dead infants because they’re considered bad luck may have played a role in the case of 21 babies’ bodies found along a river in eastern China, apparently dumped by hospital mortuary workers.

The little bodies — at least one stuffed in a yellow bag marked “medical waste” — were found floating and strewn along the bank of a river on the outskirts of Jining city in Shandong province last weekend.

Police detained two mortuary workers at a hospital who were paid by the babies’ families to dispose of the bodies.

One question that arose Wednesday was why would the parents of so many dead children simply abandon their remains?

Hospital procedures normally call for families to take away dead infants, the Shandong province-based Qilu Evening News reported. However, the death of a young child is considered bad luck among some rural families, and the body is often abandoned or buried in unmarked graves.

“According to customs in some places, dead infants are not considered to be a family member and will not be buried in family tombs,” said Cao Yongfu, professor with Medical Ethic Institute of Shandong University.

Some families would rather leave the body at the hospital or pay someone to bury it, Ma Guanghai, deputy dean at Shandong University’s School of Philosophy and Social Development, was cited as saying by the official Xinhua News Agency.

Some local customs go even further. When a baby dies, the family burns its clothes, toys and photos — anything that would remind them the child ever existed. The traditions stem from China’s agrarian past, where child deaths were common, and not considered something to dwell on.

Though the case has shocked the public, Cao said a more pressing issue was developing clear rules on disposing of bodies of infants and fetuses.