Temple shelters unidentified quake dead

January 25, 1995|By Thomas Easton | Thomas Easton,Tokyo Bureau of The Sun

KOBE, Japan -- The ancient Sumadera Temple is where those truly lost in the Great Kobe Quake can be found.

Placed in pale wood coffins lined with dry ice, 13 bodies dragged from the wreckage of last week's temblor await identification in an empty wing of the sprawling 1,100-year-old temple complex.

In the Buddhist tradition widely practiced in Japan, a priest normally would conduct services next to the deceased immediately after death. A second service is conducted later in the day. This is when the family has the last view of the body, and it is followed by cremation.

The next evening, there is a final service where remains of the deceased are passed from person to person, a recognition of finality.

Because none of this has been done for corpses within his temple, Ginin Koike, the head priest, and his brethren have been praying that the souls of the unburied are not wandering in suspension between life and what comes next, a Buddhist nightmare somewhere between purgatory and hell.

Perhaps because of the unusual circumstances, Mr. Koike says, the lack of proper burial will be understood and the spirits will not be forced to suffer.

On top of each of the rectangular coffins are white chrysanthemums placed by priests; below, blue plastic sheets protect traditional straw tatami mats. A chill emanates from the coffins, adding to the cold of the surrounding room. Walls constructed of aged wooden slats and windows of rice paper do little to block the winter winds.

Normally in these structures, heat comes from portable stoves. But concern over a major aftershock from the quake precludes the use of anything that could set the wooden building alight.

Left unsaid is the reality that the low temperature serves a purpose: Warmth would advance the decomposition of bodies and thus impede future identification.

In the air is the smell of incense from small braziers used in ceremonies honoring the dead, and the smell of cigarettes. Police have set up an emergency identification center 20 feet from the coffins.

A half-dozen officers sit behind tables, smoking, eating chocolate Quick Melt Petit Truffles, and fielding unending calls from people searching for lost friends and family.

The police appear bored. "It's work. I don't question it," says Hiroshi Takahashi, the officer in charge, who has been shifted to tracking down identities from his usual job investigating robberies.

Most of the 5,000 people killed in the quake were quickly and easily identified. The temblor came in the early morning, before the usual chaos of a workday had begun. Victims were typically crushed in their homes as they slept.

Despite its size, Japan retains many characteristics of a small town. Neighbors know each other well, and in the aftermath of the quake people were quick to determine who needed help and who was lost.

The corpses at the Sumadera Temple were exceptions -- examples of a new facet of Japanese life. In a society where everyone has traditionally had a known place, these dead

apparently did not.

Some, Mr. Takahashi suggested, may actually have been homeless, products of another recent development in Japan.

Police will release only a few details about the dead here. There are 11 males, two females, no children, no pregnant women. Several days ago two corpses were identified and taken away.

More information on each of the bodies is kept in a single white binder labeled in felt-tip pen: "Management of the Dead." Names are thought to exist for eight, but there is no confirmation and they have yet to be linked to a family. The rest are referred to by number.

Those searching for someone believed to have been lost in the quake begin at a central emergency screening agency. Depending on what is said, telephoning the temple directly may be encouraged. Enough pass this initial screen to deluge the temple with a round-the-clock barrage of calls.

If a searcher's description matches closely enough what is in the white binder, a visit is scheduled. Ordinarily, the temple is an easy 20-minute ride from Kobe's downtown, but now it is a three-hour ordeal through traffic, around collapsed homes and over buckled roads.

Few make the trip, and for those who do, the visit is brief.

"They come, they check, and they leave," says Mr. Takahashi. "They don't display a reaction -- they are emotionally prepared."

None of the searchers has sought solace from the temple or paused for prayer, says Mr. Koike, the head priest. Stoicism rules. It is the Japanese way, perhaps shaped a bit by a fatalistic awareness of history filled with similar disasters.

In the Buddhist tradition widely observed throughout Japan, priests do not serve as confessors or comforters. Rather, their intimate involvement with the experience of death is linked directly to those who have died, not to the survivors.

Soon, more bodies are expected to arrive at Sumadera. The gymnasiums and municipal buildings that had been used as emergency morgues in the immediate aftermath of the quake will soon discharge the unclaimed corpses and return to their normal functions as schools and offices.

Sumadera is one of two places within Kobe designated as a reception area. Its section of the city contains Nagata-ku, the area that experienced the worst of the devastation and the highest casualty toll.

Ten empty coffins have been assembled and are stacked against one of the room's old wooden walls ready to receive occupants. Nearby are 24 crates, each about a foot and a half thick, filled with coffin components to be soon assembled.

"This work will increase," said Mr. Takahashi, adding that he doesn't expect to return to his usual job for a long time.

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