KESENNUMA, Japan (Reuters) - Ten flimsy wooden coffins were laid on two sturdy rails at a hastily prepared cemetery of mostly mud as Keseunnuma began burying its dead from the tsunami that ripped apart the Japanese coastal city.
Desperate municipalities such as Kesennuma have been digging mass graves, unthinkable in a nation where the deceased are almost always cremated and their ashes placed in stone family tombs near Buddhist temples. Local regulations often prohibit burial of bodies.
The number of dead in Kesennuma was 551 as of Saturday, far too many for local crematoriums that can typically manage about 10 bodies a day but are now facing shortages of kerosene.
Another 1,448 in the city of about 74,000 are missing from the tsunami two weeks ago that has left more than 27,500 people dead or missing across Japan.
“This disaster has created a tsunami of tears,” said Shuko Kakayama, master of the Jifukuji Buddhist temple, which lost 300 members to the tsunami that also heavily damaged temple grounds.
Kakayama, who presided over the funeral of one temple member and prayed for all souls laid to rest, said there was a time when Japan permitted burials.
But the government has for decades sought cremations due to a lack of cemetery space in the densely populated country.
“If we are returning to the earth, then we are returning to nature,” Kakayama said.
More than 100 mourners with rubber boots for the mud, umbrellas for the rain and snow and heavy coats for the biting cold were asked by a city official to form lines in front of the casket of their family members.
“Please feel free to place whatever you want in the casket,” the official said in a funeral devoid of any formal ceremony.
Mourners approached caskets. Kakayama chanted and rang a small bell that gently punctuated the sobbing while a woman sang a song of loss, kneeling at the grave of her mother.
Mourners took lids off the coffins, placing inside food, flowers, pictures, a fresh set of clothes and other keepsakes for their departed loved ones to take with them.
There was little time to linger. The burial for the next 10 people was about to start in a few minutes in similar funerals expected to run for weeks at the wooded hilltop a few kilometers away from where the tsunami tore through the city.
Relatives burned incense, put improvised altars on the coffins and prayed.
They were told to remember the number of the wood marker placed behind the coffin because that would serve as the temporary tombstone.
Police have been storing DNA samples from unidentified bodies, which will also be buried, in case that can help identification at some later stage.
“You can visit the graves from tomorrow,” the official said. “Be careful, there will be a lot of heavy machinery here.”
Mourners filed out while a family consoled each other at a small tent that offered protection from the rain.
“All we can do is fight through this,” one said to a sobbing relative.
As workers came to nail the coffins shut, the next batch of 10 bodies arrived.
Editing by Alan Raybould