via NY Times:
It was neither the place nor the time for a proper goodbye: not here, on a homely hilltop that used to house the city garbage incinerator. And not now, fully 12 days after a tsunami erased this town’s seacoast and forever sundered hundreds of families and friendships.
Yet on this raw, wind-whipped Wednesday afternoon, Fujimi and Ekuko Kimura watched as a procession of soldiers unloaded the coffin of Taishi Kimura, husband and son, from the back of an army truck, and laid it with 35 others in a narrow trench, partitioned into graves with pieces of plywood.
It was the rudest of funerals for a family already shouldering unbearable grief. It fell to the Kimuras — later, after the soldiers left — to turn a mass burial into a poignant and graceful farewell.
In Japan, it is not normal to bury the dead, much less to lay dozens side by side in a backhoe-dug furrow. Cremation is both nearly universal and an important rite in an elaborate funeral tradition deeply rooted in Buddhism.
But across coastal northeast Japan, tradition has collided this month with mathematical reality. The number of dead and missing from the March 11 tsunami has climbed past 22,000, and in the small towns and rural villages where most people died, there are by far too many bodies to burn.
Highashi-Matsushima, a seaport of 43,000 people, has recovered 680 bodies since the tsunami hit, and nearly 500 more are missing and presumed dead. The town’s single aging crematory can accommodate but four bodies a day…
…And then there was Fujimi Kimura, 31, who was working across a river from her home, husband and two sons when the tsunami hit. The wave washed out all communications and the only bridge, leaving her stranded and unable to reach her family.
For four days, she contained the dread of her family’s fate by immersing herself in volunteer work at a refugee center. On the fifth, a boat ferried her across the river to the Yamoto town hall, where she found her husband, Taishi, also 31, on a list of the dead.
“The boys’ grandparents had gone to get the kids from school,” she said. “They took them to the second floor of our house, but my husband couldn’t make it. He was swept away in front of their eyes.”…
…Every surviving family had something to leave its loved one. Sometimes it was little more than a can of coffee or a ball of compressed rice, following a local tradition that regards food and money as essential gear for the long trip to the afterlife. Those who had lost everything had nothing more than a few flowers wrapped in newspaper, placed upright in a plastic sleeve at the head of each grave.
Fujimi Kimura wrestled with how to say goodbye to a husband whose presence only seemed to grow in death.
“In the beginning, I thought we were lucky to be alive. But as the days went on, I began to face reality,” she said. “Now it’s been 12 days, and I still can’t accept it — I can’t accept the fact that my husband is gone. He was a very kind man. He loved his kids, and he took care of them, and the kids really loved him.”
During the final private moments at Mr. Kimura’s grave, Ekuko, his mother, bent down and left a bouquet of flowers and two fresh-cut branches of a plum tree, on the cusp of blooming. Fujimi lifted the coffin’s wooden lid. Atop her husband’s body, she placed rice balls, a can of coffee, a banana and a few yen. Then she left items from the home they shared, the trappings of a life now gone: some of his favorite clothes and the bamboo sword he used in kendo, a Japanese martial art that he loved.
“I cannot meet you now,” she said before closing the lid for the last time. “But I will definitely come to see you in the future.”