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Buddhist priests pray for dead in Japan

SOMA, Japan -- Buddhist priests burned incense and chanted yesterday for Japan's tsunami victims, marking the 49th day since the disaster and closing the period when the dead were believed to be wandering in limbo through destroyed hometowns.

About 1,200 mourners filled a hall to overflowing, with many standing outside a gate, for a ceremony organized by 170 priests in the northeastern town of Soma, where much of the coast remains buried in mountains of debris from the March 11 earthquake and tsunami.

Many carried framed photographs of lost loved ones, and wept. Some clutched wood tablets containing Buddhist names assigned to the dead to help them find their way into their next phase of existence.

"There are so many still missing. There are people lost at the bottom of the sea who will never be found. But this is the day they become Buddhas. We pray for them all, and for all sentient brings," priest Kojin Sato said.

Overall, the quake and tsunami are believed to have killed nearly 26,000 people, though only about 14,500 bodies have been found. Many probably were swept out to sea, never to be found.

Kiyoshi Sakurai fears that will be the case with his elder brother, missing since the disaster.

"It's very difficult because we couldn't have a proper funeral. But this gives us some feeling of closure," Sakurai said, clutching a blurry photo of his brother.

"It was comforting to have so many priests come to pray for our relatives. Maybe someday my brother will be found. Maybe not. But he has at least had this," he said.

Many Japanese share Buddhist beliefs with the native religion of Shinto, which worships spirits in nature and dead ancestors. Virtually all rites related to death are Buddhist, and in many Japanese schools of Buddhist thought, the dead wander near their homes for 49 days before heading into their next stage of existence on the 50th day.

The Dalai Lama, the spiritual leader of Tibetan Buddhists, was visiting Japan yesterday and was scheduled to join in another memorial in Tokyo later. Spokesmen for the religious leader said he had altered his schedule to be in Japan for the 49th day since the disaster.

Seven weeks after the magnitude-9.0 earthquake and tsunami struck, some 130,000 people are still living in about 2,500 shelters.

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