Toshiko Eguchi pays her respects to her late husband under a cherry tree, instead of kneeling before a gravestone.
The ashes of her husband, who died in November 2012, were placed under the tree as a form of natural burial known as “jumokuso” (burial under a tree). The tree is one of several planted in a jumokuso area in a cemetery in Machida, Tokyo.
Eguchi, 67, plans to have her own ashes buried under the same tree.
“I don’t want to be confined in an urn. As I was born from nature, I want to return to nature,” she said.
Instead of a gravestone marking the place of burial for a single family, a cherry tree serves as a marker for a number of burial lots owned by several families. Families from any religion are accepted.
The Ending Center, a nonprofit organization, manages the jumokuso area together with the company that operates the cemetery.
In the jumokuso area, there are a total of around 3,000 burial lots. A lot for one person costs ¥400,000 and a lot for two people runs ¥700,000.
The Ending Center, which also manages a jumokuso cemetery in Takatsuki, Osaka Prefecture, has around 2,400 members, including relatives of deceased who have undergone natural burial and people who have signed up for their own burial.
With the demographic bulge caused by the baby boomers swelling the ranks of senior citizens, the group’s membership has likewise grown. In 2012, 190 people in their 60s joined up, a rise of 68 percent from the previous year, while last year 220 such people signed up.
The most popular burial practice in Japan is still burying a person’s ashes in a family grave after a Buddhist funeral. In recent years, however, alternative burial options like natural burial have been drawing growing interest.
At the Ending Center’s jumokuso cemeteries, a joint memorial service brings together families of the buried under cherry trees in the blossom season each spring.
Also, members mingle with each other during various activities, including haiku gatherings, qi gong breathing control exercises and group walks.
Hiromi Sakagami, 58, who lives with her invalid mother, now in her 80s, said that communicating with other people at monthly gatherings of members is helping her recover from a void left by the abrupt death of her father in 2012.
Her father’s ashes are buried under a cherry tree in the Machida cemetery.
“As he died of a sudden illness, I was unable to accept his death,” Sakagami said. Learning how other people face death is helping.
“I don’t want to see death coming toward me, but we can’t live forever,” she said. “Time continues to tick away, so it’s better to live an optimistic life.”
An increasing number of cemeteries and temples are creating jumokuso burial lots.
Haruyo Inoue, head of the Ending Center and a professor of sociology at Toyo University, sees jumokuso as a necessary alternative to the traditional form of burial, given the changing face of families. Family sizes are shrinking and single-member households continue to increase.
“As the nuclearization (shrinking) of families goes on, it is difficult to maintain family graves,” Inoue said.