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Unclaimed remains of 57 people kept in lockers at city office in Chiba Pref.

The same type of locker in which the Ichihara Municipal Government kept the remains of 57 people is seen at the city office in Chiba Prefecture, on May 16, 2018. (Mainichi/Shohei Kato)

ICHIHARA, Chiba -- The municipal government of this city east of Tokyo kept the unclaimed remains of 57 people in lockers at the city office, some for over three years, until late 2017, according to city officials.

    The remains belonged to people whose identities were unknown or who were on welfare and had no relatives. Remains of such people should be cremated and buried under the supervision of local governments, according to relevant laws.

    In Ichihara, such remains are usually stored temporarily in lockers in a municipal government office room while officials try to locate people who are willing to take the remains. Once the remains are determined unclaimed, the ashes are buried at a shared grave site every three months.

    The lockers in question were located near the entrance of the room where four officials advise people seeking jobs or public assistance. The remains were left inside the locker for an extended period of time because the official in charge did not brief their successor on the procedure during a personnel change in April 2017.

    According to a list of the remains obtained by the Mainichi Shimbun, 54 were cremated in 2016 and 2017, and one each in 2000, 2011 and 2014. The Ichihara Municipal Government said that the two individuals cremated in 2000 and 2011 were initially handed over to their bereaved families, but the relatives died before burying the ashes. The city repossessed the remains by 2017. As for the 2014 cremation, city officials asked relatives to accept them, but the request was not met and the remains stayed in the lockers.

    The municipal government eventually buried the ashes in a shared graveyard between September and October 2017, following a complaint from a resident. Officials then made an arrangement to have cremators take the ashes to the graveyard, and compiled a manual on the procedure in November of the same year.

    The Public Assistance Act provides for a "funeral assistance" program, under which municipalities and the central government shoulder the cost of cremation and burial. However, that law does not specify how long and where to keep these remains.

    According to an official at the public assistance division of the Ministry of Health, Labor and Welfare, an Ichihara Municipal Government official reported in June 2018 that the city was carrying out "inappropriate storage" of remains in a location accessible to people other than municipal employees.

    A city official in charge of this issue said that they "shouldn't have kept (the remains) for so long at a location not ideal" for the storage of such items.

    Lawyer Hiroki Bito, a leader of a national support group for people on welfare, said that the way the city handled the ashes was indeed "inappropriate."

    "The Public Assistance Act guarantees a minimum standard of living by providing necessary public assistance," said Bito. "Making light of people after their deaths does not go along with the spirit of the law."

    (Japanese original by Shohei Kato, Chiba Bureau)

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