By Maxim Duncan

TACLOBAN, Philippines, Nov 18 (Reuters) - Three pathologists struggled on Monday to identify dozens of fast-decomposing bodies at a mass grave, victims of the strongest typhoon ever recorded, illustrating the scale of the task the Philippines faces in the hardest-hit city of Tacloban.

More than 3,900 people are believed to have been killed when Typhoon Haiyan made landfall in the central Philippines on Nov. 8 and the sea surged ashore like a tsunami.

The pathologists from Manila's University of the Philippines worked with three morticians to identify bodies laid out in the dirt on the edge of the pit in the evening sunlight.

Monday, the tenth day after the disaster, was the first that the meticulous process identifying the bloated and rotting corpses had taken place at the grave, the main site for bodies collected from the debris of Tacloban.

Identification is especially important to Catholics in the predominantly Roman Catholic country.

As the pathologists overturned the bodies, they took photographs and notes of features, dimensions and other details like clothes, jewellery and mobile phones.

They had worked at a rate of 15 bodies-an-hour since sunrise with no shelter from the blazing sun.

With more than 300 bodies delivered to the site since Sunday, good-humoured but frustrated pathologist Raquel Del Rosario-Fortun said identifying all victims would be impossible without more staff and facilities.

She pleaded to Alfred Romualdez, Tacloban's mayor who was visiting the grave, for more help.

"Everything actually is very difficult, given the resources that we have," she said.

"There's just a few of us right now. The thing is, we just want to start a system. And we're hoping that this could go on. The idea is to try and examine all the bodies here, and not just dump them in a common grave."

Romualdez told Reuters he was exasperated by the speed of the central government's response to the storm and said his city lacked the facilities and expertise for responses like identification of bodies.

"It's going very slow," he said. "It's a process that was not studied or thought of ... Every year we're hit by strong typhoons. There must be a template already for this. It's about time our government prepares for the next storms."

Beside the pit, people unloaded a coffin made from scavenged debris from the top of a van and clambered through the graveyard to push it into narrow hole in a concrete wall.

Mourners said the dead man had been shot five times. They did not say why.

Tension has run high in Tacloban as desperate residents have looted and fought for scarce supplies. (Editing by Nick Macfie and Robert Birsel)

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    Tacloban Airport is covered by debris after powerful Typhoon Haiyan hit Tacloban city, in Leyte province in central Philippines, Saturday, Nov. 9, 2013. (AP Photo/Bullit Marquez)

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