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Wednesday, 21 July 2010

Japan Tsunami Cremation Rule

Japan Tsunami Cremation Rule

HIGASHIMATSUSHIMA, Japan-Improvised morgues across tsunami-ravaged northeastern Japan are overwhelmed by an accumulation of the dead, forcing Japanese to consider a practice that hasn't been widespread for decades: burial.

Earthquake survivors in Japan are faced with a new challenge: what to do with their dead loved ones. In a country with a tradition of cremation, the prospect of mass graves raises tension. WSJ's Mariko Sanchanta and Yumiko Ono discuss.


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Nowhere, perhaps, is Japan's vein of conformity as apparent as it is in death: 99.9% of Japanese who passed away in fiscal 2009 were cremated, according to the country's health ministry. But the March 11 earthquake and tsunami that shook Japan's people, its industries and its environment have also eroded the certainty of how many thousands of Japanese will be laid to rest.

In the worst-hit areas, local crematoriums can't incinerate the deceased fast enough to keep up with new arrivals. There isn't enough kerosene to burn the bodies, or dry ice to preserve them. As the government's official toll of the dead and missing has exceeded 21,000 people, governments of coastal villages are running out of time.

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Troops remove a body in Kesennuma on Monday. Cremation is the norm in Japan, but crematoriums in the disaster zone have been overwhelmed.

Some local governments have started burying the dead in mass graves-an extreme measure in Japan, where some municipalities ban even individual burials, citing sanitary reasons. In other areas, families and officials are seeking to forestall group burials. Some families are reported to have hauled away relatives to organize cremation on their own.

In at least one town, officials are resisting burying its dead, though it lacks alternatives.

"The prospect of pulling the deceased from under rubble- only to bury them again in soil, without even a coffin-is just not something I am prepared to do," said Futoshi Toba, mayor of Rikuzentakata, a fishing village in Iwate prefecture.

Rikuzentakata has 700 dead and a crematorium that can burn about seven bodies a day. Mr. Toba said he is asking neighboring towns and the central government to help it avoid resorting to a mass grave.

Cremation in Japan was traditionally limited to the wealthy; in the early part of the 20th century, most Japanese were buried. After World War II, cremation became more common, for reasons that had far less to do with religion than efficiency and hygiene. Burials in prewar Japan were labor-intensive, with several community members called upon to perform various parts of the passage. Cremation was seen as cleaner and more efficient. In recent decades, burials became exceedingly rare.

10 Days After the Quake

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Workers prepare for a mass burial for victims in Higashimatsushima on Monday. The large number of dead has made it impossible for crematoriums to incinerate the deceased fast enough.

To speed processing of bodies after this month's disasters, on March 14 Japan's health ministry issued an emergency measure exempting families of tsunami and quake victims from having to obtain burial and cremation permits.

The problems are clear in Higashimatsushima, an inlet coastal town of about 43,000 residents. Funeral and cremation services here are hobbled.

Near Higashimatsushima's decimated waterfront, Shigenobu Kimura pushed thick sludge out the front door of his funeral home. The tsunami had washed mud and debris into the building, which still doesn't have electricity. He says 40 to 50 families have approached him, asking what to do. Cremations Urns

"The crematoriums aren't running because there isn't fuel and this is the 10th day [since the earthquake and tsunami], so the bodies must be starting to decay," Mr. Kimura says. "I tell them to talk to the city."

With 600 residents declared dead so far, the city's three temporary morgues have been overwhelmed. Inside one of the morgues, a high-school gymnasium, 107 bodies lay atop a blue plastic tarp. The sound of sobbing could be heard from a waiting area where people checked lists of names of the deceased posted on the walls.Cremations Urns

Some of the dead were in modest white coffins covered by a sheet with a bouquet of wilted flowers on top. Other bodies lay atop the tarp, wrapped in sheets, also with bouquets.

Masayoshi Koiwa, an official in Higashimatsushima's tax offices who works at the facility, said the government expected 60 more bodies Monday. He said the town had only 20 coffins left.

The issue of how to deal with corpses in natural disasters has grown controversial in recent years. The 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami exposed authorities' lack of expertise and capacity in dealing with the dead after more than 225,000 people were killed.

In some disasters, authorities have rushed to dispose of bodies-sometimes in mass graves the size of football fields-citing fears that the corpses could spread disease or damage the psyche of survivors if left visible. But there is little risk of epidemics spread by corpses after disasters, global health officials say, in part because pathogens don't survive long in dead bodies.

Field manuals produced by the World Health Organization and other groups in recent years have strongly urged relief workers to avoid rapid disposal of bodies, which can create legal complications for families if they aren't able to identify the remains.

On Monday, Higashimatsushima was preparing for its interim solution-a grave they said could hold as many as 1,000 bodies. At the edge of town, next to a recycling center, construction-company workers dug holes with earth-moving equipment, hammering metal rods into the ground and placing plywood sheets that would serve as barriers between bodies.

Officials in Higashimatsushima said that on Tuesday, they would start burying 80 of the bodies it is storing. The burials in the grave-two trenches nearly 300 feet long apiece-are expected to be temporary, with plans to cremate the dead within two years. The town will need the consent of family members before proceeding.


"Families may be unwilling to bury, but in this case many have no choice," says Yoshio Suzuki, an official at Higashimatsushima's environmental office. "This is an unprecedented crisis."


Death Overpowers a Ritual in Japan - Cremation in Japan was traditionally limited to the wealthy; in the early part of the 20th century, most Japanese were buried. After World War II, cremation became more common, for reasons that had far less to do with religion than


Cremation in Japan - In Japan 99% of all deceased are cremated, which is hardly surprising considering the limited space available here. (Sorry, I've no idea what the other 1% do) Buddhist ceremonies are the most common, and are quite elaborate,


japanese funeral - Cremation in Japan, illustration from 1867. Picking the bones from the ashes, illustration from 1867. The coffin is placed on a tray in the crematorium. The family witnesses the sliding of the body into the cremation chamber.