Certain things become more difficult in these circumstances. For example the whereabouts of small objects. We put the seals with our names on them in a pouch, the pouch inside a bag, and we carried the bag to the car, drove the car up the hill, and we went far enough up the hill that when the water came, we could watch it come and from up there it looked like a toy flood even though we could hear it and in the noise we heard an unbearable cracking.
But where are the seals of the bodies in the tidal pools? We have pockets for this kind of thing. Pouches, we have them. Bags, small drawstring purses, coinpurses with stiff cardboard sides or rubber sides, we have backpacks, even plastic grocery bags grabbed in a hurry and filled with everything. But the hands inside the wave stripped pockets open or yanked clothes away from the body, and the bags, purses, backpacks, passports, name seals, insurance papers, photograph albums and stuffed animals disappeared.
Did you belong to the household of the deceased? Do you have their National Health Card? You are required to go in person to the place of issuance. Be sure to check whether this still exists. In the days between the death and its legalization, you make your own maps. The handling fee is ¥200 per certificate. Applications are handled at each branch office.
The first requirement is to acquire a death certificate issued by a doctor. But where are the doctors, where are the hospitals now? Where are the ballpoint pens (black only)? Where are those certificates, in which filing cabinets? Piles of paper dumped out of drawers have burnt and blown away. In the sterile white hall of a ward you turn a corner and the far wall’s completely gone. There’s water on the floor. Within seven days, that’s the requirement for the certificate, stamped with your own seal, you who apply for the doctor’s certificate, you who have come on foot or by moped or by bicycle, carefully lifting the wheels over places where the road buckles up completely. You who lifted the heavy pack onto your back at the first alarm and began to climb the hills, going farther, farther, past the place where your neighbor insisted he was safe, past the row of scraggly trees, up the road until far below you, the ocean was a black field with a white line in it, coming closer.
In order to obtain this death certificate, you will need both the hospital death record and the deceased’s identifying documents. When you apply for the death certificate, you can apply for the Certificate of Permission for Burial or Cremation at the same time. You can walk down the beige corridor and when the building begins to move underneath you can look briefly at someone passing to see whether they feel it, too, or whether your earthquake-sickness is tricking you again. You can hold onto walls. In certain undisturbed offices you can sit on leather settees or comfortable chairs and sign papers. From the windows of these places there may be views of a park. Everything may seem normal.
At the bottom of each page, your seal.
There is no limit, in cases of death not resulting from an infectious disease, within which a body must be buried or cremated, but it cannot be buried in the first 24 hours following death. (Law No. 48 of 1948, “Law Regarding Graveyards, Burials and Others”, states that “a corpse or stillborn fetus shall not be buried or cremated earlier than 24 hours after its death or birth, except as otherwise provided by ordinance”.) Weeks later families still post photographs in plastic sheaths on the lower half of the corner shop’s window. The death cannot be assumed to have happened when the body is found.
We station ourselves on the coast and watch for things that look human. They shine in the darkness like pieces of fat. With nets meant for big fish we bring them in. Hiding from the Coast Guard and the deployed Americans and the Red Cross and the teams of cleanup volunteers. We wash them. We wrap them in towels and sheets we take from the destroyed department store. We carry them to the morgues, and when the morgues are full we carry them to the gymnasiums, community centers, back entrances to hospitals, wherever the other bodies are being held. We bring kerosene when we find it. It takes 38 liters of kerosene to cremate a body, and the fuel is in short supply. The ash contains pieces of bone. You know this. You have seen it being transferred into the urn.
Assuming you have your seal and the documents identifying your deceased. Which is to say that you have found the person you are looking for, after calling their name when the first siren sounded, after a brief argument about just how high along the road out of town would be safe enough and don’t stop to take a video and I’m leaving! and after walking on, more pissed off than anything, because the anti-tsunami walls were high and things like this just don’t happen. After walking higher and seeing the wave wash out the place where you had been.
There are no remaining spaces for burial in Tokyo. Good thing you moved out here, to the coast, where it’s calmer. Where you came for air and cheaper transport and a job you thought you’d like, proximity to the sea. So far north, where you can see deer sometimes, not far from your house, on the campus of the university. And where, often, you can spend the evening walking in the hills that line the coast, while water lifts into foam among the black rocks. There is room here for the very unusual embalmed burial, and so of course for cremated remains. You’ll have to figure out how to manage all that—transportation of the body, cremation, an urn, a grave plot, a gravestone. A permanent grave plot will cost about a million yen. A gravestone, ¥700,000. You will wait in the crematorium with the other two or three families whose deceased member will be cremated today, and the small flakes of snow which began this morning will change to larger ones, and these will in turn become wet lumps of ice which stick to the window and run down it as they melt. It will take two hours, provided the kerosene has not run out. If it has, you will come back, and come back again, until there is fuel. The walk to the crematorium will become habitual, almost irritatingly familiar. Going here again? you might catch yourself thinking, when you’d rather be checking to see whether there are new warnings about green vegetables, or whether the FamilyMart has flour back in stock.
You will find a soggy black-and-silver envelope in a pile of papers on the street. You will dry it out. You need an envelope for condolence money, and they look like this.
Éireann Lorsung is the author of Music For Landing Planes By (2007) and Her Book (August 2013), both from Milkweed. Other work appears or is forthcoming in Beloit Poetry Journal, Burnside Review, Colorado Review, DIAGRAM, Women’s Studies Quarterly, The Collagist, and Bluestem. She edits 111O (111oh.com) and co-runs MIEL, a micropress (miel-books.com).