Local communities in northeastern Japan, battered by the March 11 earthquake and ensuing tsunami, are divided over whether to cremate the bodies of those killed in the disaster or bury them.
In Miyagi Prefecture, local municipalities could not cremate the bodies fast enough, forcing six local governments to move ahead to bury bodies in the ground. In Iwate Prefecture, many local communities withdrew their decision to bury the dead. In Fukushima Prefecture, all local municipalities have been cremating bodies. The Ministry of Health, Labor and Welfare had called on local governments to work out contingency plans to cremate bodies in extended areas in times of disasters, but the three prefectures have not come up with any specific plans.
In Iwate Prefecture, there were 3,838 corpses as of 7 p.m. on April 12, and about 80 percent of them, or 3,066 bodies, had been identified. There were about 100 bodies waiting to be cremated as of April 12. The local government in Kamaishi had considered burying the bodies and started to make preparations. But city authorities scrapped the plan after local municipalities in and outside of the prefecture offered to help cremate the bodies.
"We want to avoid burying the bodies in consideration of the trouble the bereaved families might have to go through later to cremate them," said Kamaishi Mayor Takenori Noda. There is only one crematorium in the city and it can only handle up to 13 bodies a day. Some 611 bodies had been cremated by April 8. Of those bodies, more than half, or 358 bodies, were cremated outside of the city. There are only about 20 bodies waiting to be cremated in the city.
The local government in Otsuchi had also decided to bury the dead. There is only one crematorium facility in the town and it is capable of cremating up to four bodies a day. But the town government scrapped the original plan to bury them after it secured help from other municipalities.
In the meantime, the Miyagi Prefectural Government started to bury bodies on March 21. "Many people are still missing and many more bodies are expected to be found later. So, we decided to go ahead and bury the bodies as we secured consent from the families concerned," said a Miyagi Prefectural Government official. The prefectural government has also been burying unidentified bodies. Documents related to bodies, including DNA data, dental features and personal belongings, are being kept at prefectural police headquarters and local municipalities, so that they could be used to help confirm their identity in the future.
In the wake of the 1995 Great Hanshin earthquake, the Health Ministry in 1997 called on prefectural governments throughout the country to map out "cremation plans" that included calls for cooperation in cremating in extended areas and selecting crematoriums. But according to the three prefectures affected by the earthquake and tsunami, they set forth cremation schemes for extended areas in their regional disaster prevention plans, but did not come up with specific procedures.
At the "Jorakuji Temple" in Kamaishi, Iwate Prefecture, a grave dug up for unidentified bodies remains empty. The grave measures 20 meters in height, 2 meters in width and 1.7 meters in depth. The grave was dug up after the city government asked the temple to cooperate because the city government thought it impossible to cremate all the bodies elsewhere. The grave has been left empty because the bodies were cremated at facilities in Aomori and Akita prefectures. Ikuo Fujiwara, chief priest of the temple, said, "If bodies are not going to be buried there, I want them to return the site to the way it was."
A total of 80 bodies had been expected to be buried in the grave on a hill behind the temple. A wooden pillar and a stone pagoda that partly read "Graveyard for the Victims of the Great East Japan Earthquake" were built at the grave. At the request of the city government, private companies and the Self-Defense Forces prepared the grave to bury bodies in until their identity could be confirmed. The grave had been scheduled to be used from March 25.