Japan disaster: Morgues, crematoriums overwhelmed

Municipalities in quake-hit areas are struggling to cope with massive numbers of dead bodies that are overwhelming makeshift morgues and local crematoriums.

In short supply of dry ice and body bags for preserving the bodies until cremation, some local governments are considering burials, a practice that is not common in Japan. However, officials are having problems securing land for the purpose.

"How many more bodies must we receive?" a city official lamented as he looked over a sports center in Miyako, Iwate Prefecture, that is being used as a temporary morgue.

As of Wednesday, the city had confirmed 200 deaths. About 150 of those bodies were brought to the sports center, but with too few body bags on hand, some had to be wrapped up in blankets. There are still about 1,600 residents missing in the city.

"We ordered dry ice, but haven't received it yet," one official said. "We can't handle any more bodies."

Yamadamachi in the prefecture resumed cremations Wednesday, using kerosene obtained from other prefectures to run the facility at full capacity.

Despite receiving kerosene--cremation normally requires 50 liters per body--the facility can only handle five bodies a day.

The Iwate prefectural government has asked inland municipalities that were not as badly affected by the quake to relieve some of the burden and cremate the bodies in their facilities.

If the bodies are not dealt with soon, they will begin to cause hygiene problems, according to the prefectural government. However, some point out the lack of fuel needed to transport the bodies.

Some municipalities have begun preparing to bury the bodies, but it is a rare practice in the prefecture: Burials typically only account for 0.04 percent of funeral rites.

"We don't really have the know-how to bury these bodies," said a prefectural official dealing with the issue. "We don't know how much land a burial will require or where the best place for it is."

The Miyagi prefectural government has set up a team to deal with burials, compiled manuals and distributed them to municipalities hit by the quake and tsunami.

According to the law concerning graveyards and burials, it is only possible to bury uncremated remains after receiving permission from the head of a municipality. Many municipalities have banned the practice over public health concerns.