SCOTT SIMON, Host:
At least 7,200 people are confirmed dead in Japan's twin disasters, and officials there are struggling to cope with the recovered bodies. NPR's Anthony Kuhn reports from the northern city of Kessenuma, on the effort to maintain dignity and respect while sending off the deceased.
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ANTHONY KUHN: Takakazu Yamazaki, a Kessenuma municipal government employee, remembers speaking to his parents by phone not long before the earthquake and tsunami hit.
SIMON: (Through Translator) My parents were in Kesennuma for shopping. On the way back, in Oya, they were hit by the tsunami and drowned in their car. They were found three days later.
KUHN: Yamazaki says the tsunami left his home, in a neighboring town, looking like an air raid had flattened it. The tsunami, he says, destroyed his ancestors' tombs at a local Buddhist temple.
SIMON: (Through Translator) I just passed through Kesennuma. I saw intact buildings. What can I say? I was envious.
KUHN: And yet, Yamazaki still finds reasons to be grateful.
SIMON: (Through Translator) I'm lucky my parents' bodies were found. They are intact and can be cremated. I think many others were washed out to sea and still haven't been found.
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KUHN: The Yamazaki family members finish paying their last respects, and crematorium manager Hitoshi Osaka turns on the ovens. The crematorium has a backup generator just in case of emergencies like this. Osaka says each cremation takes two hours. And with three ovens, he can cremate six bodies a day. Usually, that's enough for a city where the population of 70,000 is declining and aging. But the current disaster has overwhelmed his facility, he says, and it will take him months to work through the backlog of cremations.
SIMON: (Through Translator) At the moment, we are fully booked for March and April - probably until May.
KUHN: Usually, says Osaka, families are formally dressed in black and have large groups. But few families can afford the luxury of such formality under the current, harsh situation. Osaka says the funeral groups are smaller because downed telephone lines keep them from communicating. Many of the bodies, he adds, now come in bags instead of coffins.
SIMON: (Through Translator) Yesterday, three people came with backpacks on. They weren't wearing formal suits; they were wearing the same clothes they wore when they were evacuated. It's hard just to get here.
KUHN: Down the hill from the crematorium is the Temple of Stilled Thoughts. Deputy abbot Hatsuyo Takahashi says temple staff have their hands full, caring for a hundred-some evacuees.
SIMON: (Through Translator) In this kind of disaster and emergency, we would like to give people a place to pray. We are opening the temple to all as a place of refuge.
KUHN: Anthony Kuhn, NPR News, Kesennuma.
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