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From Icy Waters to the Frozen Ground / From Icy Waters to the Frozen Ground: The Conflicting Case of Temporary Burial Sites in 2011 Post-Tsunami Japan

  • Duly, Sora
Publication Date
May 24, 2024
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On March 11, 2011, the earthquake and tsunami that devastated the Tohoku region resulted in the deaths and disappearances of over 22,000 people. The remains had to be managed through a process that included searching for and collecting the bodies, their systematic administrative registration, identification, and the return of their remains to the families for funeral procedures, specifically cremation, in accordance with Japanese funerary customs. However, in the Ishinomaki region, a major coastal city in the Miyagi prefecture, the number of bodies – 3,819 dead and missing – largely exceeded the local capacities for their management. The temporary morgues were overflowing, and the crematoriums had not only suffered significant damage from the earthquakes and waves but could only cremate up to 20 bodies per day. Despite their identification and return to the families, the Municipality and the Prefecture took the decision on March 17th to bury the bodies in temporary mass graves, following international protocols for managing the dead. However, the purely mortuary practice of temporarily burying the dead for preservation purpose took on a funerary and commemorative aspect involving Buddhist rituals and prayers. The procedure mobilised various actors and stakeholders who described the experience as a traumatising one for the relatives and those who were involved in handling the dead. The focus of this presentation is based on the initial findings of a fieldwork conducted between fall 2022 and spring 2023 as part of a doctoral research project investigating the intersection of forensic protocols and funerary practices in mass death contexts.

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