Remote resting place: Islet a site for ash scattering

by Takeshi Nishide

Kyodo

Kazura Island in the Sea of Japan is attracting interest from people looking for an alternative to ash interment, as the uninhabited islet has become a dedicated site for ash scattering.

An affiliate of a funeral service company in Tokyo started to offer ash scattering on Kazura Island in 2008, after acquiring it from a private owner.

There are no tombstones on Kazura Island because “the island itself is a tomb of sorts,” said Toshinori Watanabe of Kazura Inc., the firm that owns the islet.

There are few artificial structures other than a wooden walkway leading to the top of the hilly island where ashes are scattered.

Kazura Island, which is around 1,000 sq. meters in size, is part of the Oki Islands off Shimane Prefecture and is located within Daisen-Oki National Park.

To preserve the environment, visitors are only allowed to set foot on the islet during several days in May and September when ash-scattering ceremonies are held and people interested in the service can inspect the site.

On other days, people can pay their respects from a memorial facility in the town of Ama on neighboring Nakanoshima Island.

People from all over Japan, most with no connection to the Oki region, have signed up for the ash-scattering service, hoping to “rest amid nature,” according to the company.

So far, more than 50 ash-scattering ceremonies have been held on the island.

It is common for a person’s ashes to be interred in a family grave after a religious funeral, but an increasing number of people have begun seeking alternatives. Those lacking an heir to take over the care of family graves or who have no particular religious faith see ash scattering at sea and on mountains as a “natural funeral rite.”

Some are also looking to avoid the high costs of religious funerals, which typically amount to a couple of million yen.

The fee for the ash-scattering service on Kazura Island is slightly less than ¥300,000. People can either visit the island and scatter the ashes themselves or commission the company to perform the service.

Kazura is one of a few islands in the world that are used exclusively for ash scattering, according to Midori Kotani, a senior researcher of Dai-ichi Research Institute who looks into funeral customs.

Michio Yamauchi, the mayor of Ama, expressed hope that the ash-scattering service will boost his local revitalization initiative. “It would be good if visitors come to love Ama by getting to know the nature and people here.”

Meanwhile, Soso Japan Society, a nonprofit organization based in Tokyo, is promoting the scattering of ashes at sea among other alternative funeral practices.

The organization was founded in 1991 after the Justice Ministry approved ash scattering within certain constraints. Before the decision, unconventional funeral practices like ash scattering were regarded as inappropriate or even illegal.

Hiromi Shimada, a well-known religious scholar who took over as the organization’s leader this year, has vowed to step up the initiative to have alternative funerals accepted more widely.

Shimada argues that elaborate, costly funeral ceremonies should be discarded in favor of simple farewell services, particularly in the case of people who have lived to a ripe old age. “A casual, no-frills ceremony is desirable, as medical care must have already cost money.”