Hiroko Masuike/The New York Times
One undertaker, Atsushi Chiba cared for almost 1,000 bodies in Kamaishi. Mr. Chiba, in his early 70s, raced to the temporary morgue on the day after the tsunami to look for friends and family, but was struck by the state of the mounting number of bodies there. Most were still clad in muddy clothes and wrapped in plastic, their rigid limbs jutting out and faces bruised by debris and contorted in agony.
“I thought that if the bodies were left this way, the families who came to claim them wouldn’t be able to bear it,” Mr. Chiba said Thursday in an interview. “Yes, they are dead. But in Japan, we treat the dead with respect, as if they are still alive. It’s a way to comfort the living.”
Mr. Chiba set to work. He became a fixture at the morgue, speaking to the bodies as he prepared them for viewing and then cremation. “You must be so cold and lonely, but your family is going to come for you soon so you’d better think of what you’re going to say to them when they arrive,” he recalled saying.
He also taught city workers at the morgue how to soothe limbs tense with rigor mortis, getting down on his knees and gently massaging them so the bodies looked less contorted. When the relatives of a middle-aged victim sobbed that her corpse looked gaunt, Mr. Chiba asked for some makeup and applied rouge and blush.
Mr. Chiba’s attempts to honor the dead quickly caught on. City workers put together old school desks to make a Buddhist altar. They lay the bodies of couples and of family members together. Each time a body was carried out, workers lined up with heads bowed to pay their last respects.
And at Mr. Chiba’s urging, Kamaishi became one of the only hard-hit communities to cremate all of its dead as called for by Japanese custom, enlisting the help of crematoriums as far as Akita, over 100 miles away.
In all, 888 of Kamaishi’s approximately 40,000 residents are known to have died; 158 more are listed as missing and presumed dead.
The priest, Enou Shibasaki, from the Senjuin Temple in the hills overlooking Kamaishi, remembers the change that came over the makeshift morgue as Mr. Chiba and other city workers tended to the bodies.
“Whether you are religious or not, mourning for the dead is a fundamental need,” Mr. Shibasaki said. “Mourning starts by taking care of the body. It’s the last you see of your loved one, and you want to remember them as beautiful as they were in life.”
Read the details of this story in a recent NY Times article
Here's a great slideshow with the faces of the tsunami:
If you were impressed with the graphics put together showing the before and after photos of the destruction caused by the tsunami,
this next graphic shows the progress that has been made repairing the damage. Click on this link to see.