Burial Death + Disaster

1,000 Irradiated Dead Bodies in Japan

Up to 1,000 Bodies Left Untouched Near Troubled Nuke Plant
Kyodo News (March 31, 2011)

I started this new post on the aftermath in Japan before today’s announcement that another earthquake had hit the country and that a potential tsunami was forecast. These most recent events will only compound Japan’s problems but they also contribute to a large post-disaster narrative: Japan is dealing with scenarious that have only ever been imagined on paper. Everything that has happened is an unbelievable list of ‘What If’s.’

What if:

  1. There’s an unexpected and violent earthquake which strikes in an area that not many seismologists predict.
  2. The unexpected earthquake is then followed by an unprecedented and completely destructive three stories tall tsunami wave.
  3. All of these events then lead to massive infrastructure collapse which then cause half-a-dozen nuclear power reactors to either shut down or go into meltdown.
  4. Leading to an unprecedented battle between a small group of Japanese engineers attempting to control the nuclear meltdown and exposing themselves to ultimately fatal levels of radiation. This last point is pure speculation but it is difficult to imagine anything else happening.
  5. Every single one of these different but related events leads to the creation of a large nuclear radiation exclusion zone and means that a 1,000+ bodies are left in that exclusion zone because it is too dangerous to retrieve the human remains.

It is difficult to think of another multiple level disaster on this scale. The only examples that I have come across are Hiroshima and Nagasaki.

The article at the top of the page discusses the dead bodies left within the radiation exclusion zone. This is a story that I’m particularly interested in following, since the funereal practices normally practiced in Japan have already been thrown into disarray. I wrote about that situation here.

This LA Times article captures the ongoing postmortem crisis many next-of-kin are facing.

Shoichi Nakamura is having trouble sleeping and eating. Her brother, sister-in-law and their child have been missing for more than a week. She’s been to three evacuation centers and pored over countless lists at disaster centers.


That’s left her with a dilemma she shares with a growing number of Japanese in the wake of the March 11 earthquake and tsunami: When do you give up hope that your relatives are alive? And how do you mark a death in tradition-bound Japan without a body to cremate?

These photos in the National Journal visually capture all of these dilemmas. The images of destroyed cemeteries and mass burials are particularly jarring.

I have one final comment, and it’s about the February earthquake in New Zealand. The Guardian ran the following article last week: New Zealand’s chief coroner says some of those killed during earthquake may never be identified.

It seems likely that some (possibly many) dead bodies in Japan will not be identified for a long time to come. It may take months, if not years, before the irradiated remains can be safely recovered and handled.

I mention all this because if there is any country in the world that will do everything it can to identify the dead, it is Japan.

Burial Death + Disaster

Japan Begins Mass Burials

Hasty Burial for the Dead Collides With Tradition
Michael Wines, The New York Times (March 24, 2011)
Families of the tsunami’s victims faced a mass burial in a seaport town in northeast Japan, where mathematical reality has made cremation impossible.

99%. That is the number which kept going through my head when I saw the tidal wave sweeping through northeast Japan.

99% of all Japanese dead are cremated. Indeed, Japan is always at the top of international indexes on annual cremation rates.

But when I saw the remnants of those Japanese villages, I knew that there would be too many dead bodies for the local crematoria– in the event those crematoria were even functional.

It has taken a while for this kind of story to finally emerge from Japan, but the New York Times is now reporting on mass burials of the dead. The turn to mass burials is a radical break for contemporary Japanese funereal traditions, but when confronted with the sheer numbers of dead, little choice remained.

There is one section of the article which I take slight exception to. Towards the end of the entire article, which is well reported, the following point is made:

It was the bureaucracy’s best effort to imbue Wednesday’s interments with the dignity of genuine funerals rather than what they were: an unavoidable response to a potential public health problem. Later in the day, Buddhist monks would come to the site to pray over the graves.

The often cited fear of potential public health problems is not entirely accurate. Last year, in the aftermath of the Haiti earthquake, the Death Reference Desk discussed the widely held misconception that dead bodies pose a public health concern. It is true that people working around masses of dead bodies should wear normal protective gear (gloves, masks, etc.) but those bodies aren not going to rampantly spread disease.

Meg wrote a particularly insightful piece on this very topic: The (un)Diseased Dead.

All this said, I understand the push for burial. Dead bodies decompose and they smell and all of this can compound the broader tragedy.

It is also important to note that Japanese officials appear to be doing something which stands in stark contrast to the Haiti situation: the dead are being identified before burial. Thousands of dead bodies were buried in Haiti without any ID’ing of the corpses. Identifying each of the bodies is important for many of the families and it helps establish who is known to be dead vs. missing and presumed dead.

As usual, we will keep an eye on this particular facet of the Japanese disaster.

Out of respect for the dead.


The Cliffs of Tojimbo

At Japanese Cliffs, a Campaign to Combat Suicide
Martin Fackler, New York Times (December 17, 2009)

Tojimbo Cliffs

“I will continue until the government finally gets its act together and takes over,” he said. “I can’t let their inaction cost another precious life.”

Japan has a long history of suicide. And nowhere is this cultural phenomenon felt more keenly than at the cliffs of Tojimbo, a popular tourist destination, on Japan’s western coast. This scenic and treacherous spot has the grim distinction as being one of the best known places to kill oneself in Japan.

Japan’s suicide rate is an astonishing three times higher than that of the U.S. In 2003, a record 34,427 people committed suicide in Japan and this year is on track to approach that number. Due to the global financial crisis and Japan’s long economic decline, suicide has become an “honorable” solution in a place where depression is little discussed and very rarely addressed.

But there is one man who is trying to change all this, at least in his small (but arguably large) way. He is Yukio Shige, a retired policeman who has dedicated his days to trying to prevent people from jumping off Tojimbo’s cliffs. Mr. Shige has also organized over 70 volunteers who also help him patrol the cliffs, looking for the loners. Read the NYTimes article linked above for a profile of this good Samaritan.

I am truly in awe of his dedication to this mission. It is an amazing testament to the resolve of one man, determined to save lives, one conversation at a time. If I had a hero, Mr. Shige would be it.

Death + Popular Culture Death + Technology



The euthanasia of unwanted cats and dogs is a regular occurrence the world over. However, in Japan, it takes on epic proportions. The voracious appetite of the Japanese for all things cute, fluffy and designer has spawned one of the worst adoption/destruction ratios anywhere. Whereas, in the United States about half of the animals in shelters are euthanized; in Japan, that number climbs to a staggering 90%.

The preferred method in Japan is to euthanize the animals by dumping them in an airtight metal box—as many as eight at a time—and pumping in carbon monoxide. This CNN video features one Japanese shelter on a typical day as they round up the animals for disposition. The reporter introduces the story by warning that some viewers may find the content “objectionable.” Yes, but not in the assumed way—not for having to see dogs and cats on “death row” (a misnomer of course since they did nothing wrong to land there, other than to be born). No, it’s objectionable because of the callous disregard for life that put them there in the first place.

This Asahi Shimbun newspaper article describes the ways in which workers at an animal protection center in one Japanese prefecture are doing outreach to school children to sensitize them and teach them about animal cruelty. “Now you understand that dogs and cats also have feelings, don’t you?” a worker at the Mie animal protection center asked students at Ominato Elementary School in Ise, Mie Prefecture, in early September.

The way in which we treat animals is reflective upon how we, as a society, understand life and death. The attendant value we assign to different living things is a sad commentary on the priorities of consumer-driven cultures (USA included) willing to sacrifice innocent life forms in the name of feeding faddish, acquisitive tendencies.

Death + the Economy Suicide

Stressed Out


In the U.S. and overseas, the recession is taking a toll. In addition to bodies stacking up at morgues and cemeteries in foreclosure, we can now add to the list the phenomenon of economy-induced, work-related suicides.

As reported in The Guardian and other news outlets, France Telecom is experiencing a rash of suicides that began in the beginning of 2008. Since that time, there have been 24 suicides and 13 attempted suicides among the company’s 100,000 employees. The cause? Work stress. You can also listen to the full story on today’s All Things Considered.

Stress-related deaths are nothing new. In Japan, the country has seen an increase in incidents of karoshi, which literally translates to “death from overwork.” However, karoshi differs from stress-related suicide in that the manner of death is attributed to heart attack or stroke. Government and business leaders have begun to acknowledge, albeit slowly, the problems associated with over-working and have started to implement programs that strive to achieve more of a work/life balance.