JAPAN EARTHQUAKE-TSUNAMI ANNIVERSARY

FROM THE ARCHIVES: She makes final farewells less traumatic for Japan's disaster victims

ORDERED CHAOS: Wrecked cars lie neatly stacked atop one another along a street in Kensennuma, Miyagi prefecture, 11 months after the area was devastated by a tsunami. Huge efforts are being made to restore order amid the chaos. Debris has been sorted
ORDERED CHAOS: Wrecked cars lie neatly stacked atop one another along a street in Kensennuma, Miyagi prefecture, 11 months after the area was devastated by a tsunami. Huge efforts are being made to restore order amid the chaos. Debris has been sorted into piles of differing elements such as plastic, metal and wood. -- ST FILE PHOTO: JOYCE FANG

This story first appeared in The Straits Times on March 10, 2012

TOKYO - After the elements have taken a toll on the victims of the Great East Japan Earthquake, Ms Ruiko Sasahara is reversing the process.

A mortician by profession, Ms Sasahara has been working as a volunteer up and down the north- eastern coast of Japan since the disaster struck last year, repairing battered faces so that surviving relatives can say their final farewells.

“I wanted bereaved families’ last memories of their loved ones to be of them with the best possible expression on their faces,” Ms Sasahara told the Yomiuri newspaper.

Her contributions are recorded in a recently released book titled Farewell From The Heart: The Compassionate Mortician Of The Great East Japan Earthquake.

Soon after the disaster last March, 39-year-old Ms Sasahara was given the task of preparing the body of a young girl.

Recovered from the ocean, the body was covered in seaweed, sand and shells, and the skin had lost its natural colour.

Ms Sasahara said she realised that restoring bodies was the only way in which she could contribute in the aftermath and immediately volunteered her skills.

She has worked on around 400 bodies, beginning her heart-breaking task by speaking quietly to the person and then placing her hands on the face to discern the shape of the nose, cheeks and eyebrows.

For bodies that sustained little damage and were found relatively soon after the disaster, the process can take as little as 20 minutes.

But with the days stretching into weeks and months and now a full year, her task is much more difficult.

One body that was found 43 days after being pummelled by the tsunami took her more than three hours to recreate. And, aware that the face that she is going to present to the grieving family will be the last memory they have of that person, she has even resorted to using clippings from her own hair to restore eyelashes and eyebrows.


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