Death is no easy matter in Japan

Hidenobu Murakawa stops his tour for a moment and apologises for the interruption. The crematorium is his pride and joy. He helped design it and he clearly loves to show it off.
But it’s the midday crunch, and he doesn’t want to disturb the bereaved.

With 15 000 cremations each year, this sprawling facility on Tokyo’s western outskirts is the busiest in Japan. About 40 cremations are carried out here each day, though Murakawa boasts that he has accommodated as many as 94.

“Turnover is everything,” he said as a procession of mourners walked back slowly from a row of ebony-and-gold oven doors at the end of a black marble hall, the smell of incense lingering in the air. “We’re not a government-run operation. This is a private business.”

And, as the crowds attest, business is booming.

Few nations are as rich as the Japanese, or as enamoured of high-tech and the pageantry of life’s rites of passage. With precious little space left for traditional graves, innovation—from more efficient crematoria to virtual graveyards on the internet—is the foundation on which empires are being built.

Rapidly ageing

Of course, there’s more at work than mere business savvy.

Japan’s population is one of the most rapidly ageing in the world. Families are increasingly fragmented, leaving no one to care for the old-style communal burial plots. And despite Japan’s vast material wealth, the nation continues to struggle to find a spiritual identity.

But, even in death, there is no escape from the bottom line.

A typical funeral—just the ceremony—averages about 3,5-million yen (R1,9-million), compared with less than $10 000 (R58 000)—plot and everything—in the United States or Britain.

Though practically universal here, cremation itself is a carefully packaged deal.

Murakawa, a former garbage-incineration facility manager, explained that the 15 ovens at his crematorium are divided into three grades. For those willing to pay the extra fee, there are two “A” ovens, which have their own private hallway, a spacious area for viewing the remains afterward and various other accessories.

At the row of eight economy-class ovens, mourning parties pay their respects side-by-side.

“We try to provide dignity for all,” he said. “But privacy is a commodity.”

Murakawa’s employer, Toda Mortuary, is a huge complex with a morgue, private viewing rooms and reception halls. There’s even a row of small apartments for people whose own homes are too humble to host a wake. At a separate out-of-town site, Toda offers regular graves, graves for groups and rental graves.

“Over there,” Murakawa said, pointing across a parking lot filled with elaborately gilded hearses, “we’re building another crematorium, just for pets.”

No more space

Traditionally, after cremation, Japanese are interred in family plots, usually on or near the grounds of Buddhist temples.

Plots can contain the memorial stones and ashes of several generations, each ancestor bearing a new name bestowed by priests for the afterlife. Fees to the priests can run into the tens of thousands of dollars, depending on how auspicious the name is deemed to be.

But tiny Japan, bursting with the living, has pretty much run out of space for the dead.

Tokyo’s Aoyama cemetery, renowned for its cherry trees and uptown location, is Japan’s most famous graveyard. Since it opened in 1874, the remains of more than 110 000 people have been interred there, including politicians, writers, artists and actors.

Undaunted by prices ranging from 4,5-million yen to 10,3-million yen (R250 000 to R573 000), several thousand people applied when 50 plots were made available last year, the first such offering for the general public since 1960.

“Only one in every 61,8 applicants was chosen for the smaller plots,” said cemetery manager Chikako Ueno—meaning it’s roughly twice as hard to get a plot in Aoyama as it is to get accepted to Harvard University.

Japan has thus been forced to explore its options.

Japanese account for about half of the 100 or so people whose encapsulated remains have been rocketed into space. A group of funeral homes recently bought an uninhabited island exclusively for ash dispersal, and tours are now available for people wanting to scatter ashes in the waters off Hawaii. For those who live far from the family plot, websites offer virtual graves.

‘Natural funerals’

In 1991, the government legalised “natural funerals”, a euphemism for the dispersal of ashen remains at sea or in designated hills or wooded areas. The idea of scattering ashes is catching on—a fifth of all Japanese is believed to prefer it.

Toda Mortuary provides help for them, too.

In an immaculate room not far from the crematorium, Junya Matsumoto, his sister-in-law and her son stand by a table on which rests a steel bowl of ashes and bone fragments. Bowing, an attendant pushes a button and two tinted glass doors open up to reveal a machine that looks something like a large milkshake maker.

The machine, called a pulveriser, quickly reduces the remains to a fine powder—a prerequisite for dispersal under Japanese law.

“My mother wanted to be scattered over the Pacific,” Matsumoto said after running some of the powder through his fingers. “Many Japanese still aren’t comfortable with this sort of thing. But it was her wish.”

Despite all the high-tech touches, Japanese funerals are steeped in ritual and overwhelmingly conducted according to Buddhist practice.

The deceased is usually taken first to the home and put back into bed—with head pointing north—for a day or two. A wake follows, often at the home, with a great deal of rice-wine drinking by black-clad friends and relatives.

The much more somber funeral is presided over by a chanting priest, and guests offer incense before a chrysanthemum-covered altar. After cremation, relatives use chopsticks to transfer the bones into the urn, which is kept on display at home for another 35 days before being buried.

Embalming

Embalmer Kenichiro Hashizume, the mortician’s son who heads Grief Support International, is something of a death-industry pioneer.

The embalming trade is so new here that it remains almost completely unregulated. Nearly all of its 46 practitioners are foreigners—whose passports refer to them as “engineers”—or were trained abroad. Hashizume, for example, got his degree at the Pittsburgh Institute of Mortuary Science.

It’s a good living.

“But with more people living overseas or spread out in different cities, it takes longer to get families together for the memorials. People are keeping their dead for as long as 10 days in many cases,” he said. “This is one of the main reasons why they are beginning to seek out embalmers.”

Because it is still considered a novelty, only about 13 000 bodies a year—1% of the total—are embalmed. But Hashizume believes it’s a growth market.

“I could see it easily reaching about 30%,” he said.

For Hashizume, however, death isn’t just a source of income.

One of only a handful of grief therapists in Japan, he worries that too much emphasis is placed on pomp and pricey send-offs, and not enough on the emotional healing of the survivors.

“Losing a loved one is an overwhelming thing, anywhere,” he said. “But perhaps even more so in Japan. People here don’t allow themselves to mourn. They feel they must be strong and proper and not disturb the proceedings.”

Marlow Wood, an American who has been embalming in Japan for the past five years, thinks that compared with the US, Japan’s funeral practices make sense.

“It’s expensive, but the Japanese system is very efficient and therapeutic,” he said. “It helps get people through the process. And cremation is better than earth burial in every way.”—Sapa-AP

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