Stuffy, costly Buddhist rites giving way to flexible approach to funerals

by Shinichi Tokuda

Kyodo News

The days when funeral services were held according to a family’s religious beliefs are giving way to more flexible ways of saying goodbye to the dearly departed.

Japanese tended to shy away from talking about funerals until about 10 years ago because they thought it was bad luck and someone would quip: “You’d better knock on wood after saying something like that.”

But these days, more people are choosing to play a greater role in making their own funeral arrangements so the event reflects the way the deceased lived their lives.

Some funerals skip the religion aspect and feature attractions like art and music.

Firms outside the industry are also trying to get a piece of the action, as the funeral sector looks like a sure bet amid the rapidly graying society.

Funeral homes do not keep the bodies before the service because the deceased is usually laid out at home.

The Tokyo-based funeral business Kurashi no Tomo (Friend of Living) operates in the Kanto region. In fiscal 2003, 20 percent of the 5,000 services it handled were held in accordance with the deceased’s wishes.

It has also noticed a rising number of people who do not want a religious service.

The company sees a variety of reasons for this trend — many people are unfamiliar with the particular Buddhist sect their family belongs to, families do not want to give a posthumous Buddhist name and women are put off by the gloomy atmosphere of a Buddhist funeral.

“An altar adorned with flowers rather than an unvarnished wood altar is popular with (women),” the company said in a statement. “Services emphasizing individuality, such as playing music to say a final goodbye to the dead, are increasing.”

Relatives are also trying to make funerals reflect the lives of their dearly departed.

One woman wanted the altar to show a golf image because her father loved the game. It was bedecked with flowers shaped like a putting green with flowers shaped like Mount Fuji decorating the background.

This trend is emerging as the typical size of a funeral service is declining. The number of people attending the rites managed by the firm in fiscal 2003 totaled 130 per funeral on average, a decrease of 15 from the year before. The costs of funerals — which are some of the highest in the world — are also falling as more families seek smaller services.

But despite these figures, newcomers are flocking to the industry. One is Cradle Co., a subsidiary of Chutetsu Product Co., which makes illuminated signs in Tokyo.

Cradle developed a one of a kind “creative altar” using indirect neon illumination.

Other firms cannot compete with the company’s products in terms of “design and technology,” said Tetsuro Yokouchi, president of the company, who used to be a car designer.

These creative altars can easily be assembled in places like hotels. The company aims to sell five a month and said it is getting a “very good” response from funeral homes.

Forval Corp. of Tokyo, which sells office automation equipment and handles network business, has developed a system to work out estimates of funeral costs.