Japan buries tsunami victims in mass graves

AFP , Wednesday 23 Mar 2011

Japanese morgues are unable to keep up with rising death toll as dozens of tsunami victims are buried in mass graves

A buddhist monk prays for the victims of the March 11 earthquake and tsunami at a temporary mass grave in Higashi Matsushima, Tuesday, (Reuters).

Relatives wept and soldiers saluted as dozens of tsunami victims in simple wooden coffins were buried in a mass grave Wednesday in a city in northeast Japan overwhelmed by death.

With makeshift morgues close to overflowing and crematoriums unable to keep pace with the numbers of bodies, the Japanese authorities have taken the drastic step of using mass burial sites as temporary resting places.

The burials in Higashimatsushima began on Tuesday, and 60 bodies have now been interred in a series of 50 metre-long trenches dug at the site of a former recycling centre on the outskirts of the town, including 36 on Wednesday.

Japanese usually cremate their dead, but the normal system has been unable to cope with the impact of the 11 March tsunami. The confirmed death toll currently stands at more than 9,400 with nearly 15,000 more missing.

"At the local crematorium, we can only cremate six bodies a day, and that just isn't enough for the situation we have here," said municipal official Hatsuhiro Kono.

Japanese funerals are usually an elaborate mix of religion and tradition, with the deceased laid out with their head facing north for a wake, followed by a ceremony in which incense is burned and a monk often chants Buddhist sutras.

After the cremation, the family uses chopsticks to pick the bone fragments from the ash, pass them from person to person and put them in an urn, which stands on an altar at home for several weeks before being placed in a grave.

The plan for the tsunami victims, Kono said, was for the remains to be exhumed once a semblance of normality had returned to the area, when the families would be allowed to cremate them with the proper rituals.

It was not clear if this could take months, or maybe even years.

Kono said 400 more bodies were currently awaiting burial and with corpses being recovered from the devastated area on a daily basis the local government is preparing for a final count of up to 1,000 at the mass grave.

For the moment, the authorities in Higashimatsushima are only burying bodies which have been positively identified.

The simple wooden coffins, draped in white cloth, were laid in the mass grave by uniformed members of the Japanese Self Defence Force, who wore face masks and saluted each set of remains as they were lowered down.

The tops of the coffins were then opened to allow family members, who numbered around 100, to say a last tearful goodbye and to slip some mementoes into the casket before it was closed up.

After the trench had been filled with earth, each plot was marked with a small wooden stake bearing the name of the deceased.

Kono said those bodies that remained unidentified would be buried last to give the maximum time possible for someone to claim them.

Eventually, however, they would also have to be interred, with records and DNA samples kept to facilitate any future identification.

Despite the miraculous rescue of two people from the rubble of one town on Sunday, the main search effort along Japan's northeastern coast switched its focus from survivors to bodies days ago.

Experts say the remains of the vast majority of those missing will never be recovered given the destructive force of the tsunami that wiped out entire communities.

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