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Cardboard headstones, simple ceremonies: Little opportunity to grieve after Typhoon Haiyan

PALO, Philippines -- Tito Epitito rested on the handle of his shovel and wiped his brow as his son placed a candle on the simple grave where they had just buried the coconut farmer's brother.

They stood for a moment in silence.

A wooden cross made from typhoon debris marked the grave, in the shadow of a battered statue of Christ in the grounds of the shell of what had been St. Jaoquin Parish Church in the coastal town of Palo.

Tito Epitito buried his brother in a simple grave in the grounds of St. Jaoquin Parish Church in Palo. NBC News

"From the typhoon end, so many bodies buried here," Epitito said.

"Fifty bodies buried there," he added, pointing beyond the statue. "And another two to three hundred in mass graves over there."

Four members of Epitito's family are still missing. But at least he'd been able to pay respects to his brother, however simple the ceremony.

Other graves were marked by wooden or cardboard headstones, one listing the names of 22 members of the Lacandazo family. "Died on Nov 8," it said at the bottom of the handwritten list. The ink was smudged by the rain.

The parish priest said he had given the bodies a simple blessing, when he could. But there were so many of them.

"We do pray for them," he added. "One hundred and twenty came in one batch."

Most of the bodies still being recovered will never be identified. Unless they are carrying documentation they are being quickly buried in mass graves.

Palo lies around 20 miles south of Tacloban, the regional capital. The coast here was especially hard hit by a combination of Typhoon Haiyan and the storm surge that followed, leaving behind a twisted mess of palm trees, wood and metal.

The mayor of nearby Tanauan reckons that 1,200 people died in his area, with 800 still missing and presumed dead.

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Two weeks after the typhoon, they are still digging out bodies, assisted by a team from Rescuenet, an international relief organization.

During one recent recovery mission, they were quickly approached by local people, pointing at the swamp-surrounded remains of several houses.

"Over there two bodies, and another down there," one man shouted.

They know because of the smell.

Dick Brouwer, an emergency response specialist from the Netherlands, was leading the international team.

"It's not an easy job," he said. "But it's a thankful job at the same time, because it is very helpful to this community."

Filipino soldiers carrying a body bag near Tanauan. Ian Williams / NBC News

A small crowd gathered, including several children with frozen smiles as Brouwer and his team, assisted by soldiers, used machetes to hack through the twisted palm trees to reach the body of a what appeared to be a young woman.

She was lifted into a body bag.

Within half an hour, four more bodies were recovered, including two babies. One rescue worker could barely speak as he stood beside their body bags.

The bodies where transferred to a piece of ground behind the mayor's office, where three mass graves had been dug.

The official death toll from Typhoon Haiyan has reached more than 5,200.

But in truth, nobody can say for sure how high that number will climb, and it may be months before there is an accurate figure.

For relief workers now pouring into the region, the priority is not haggling over death toll figures, but aiding the recovery, which is now gaining traction.

Food, water and medicine is flowing into this area. The priority now in Tanawan and Palo is shelter, most houses having been destroyed. On Thursday, crowds lined up at St. Jaoquin Parish Church to receive a first consignment of tarps, unloaded from a truck a few yards from the mass graves and the makeshift final resting place of Epitito's brother.

Several more crude headstones have been added since Epitito's burial and children played amidst them. There were more candles and a cluster of leaves, probably the closest somebody could find to flowers.

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