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‘Ending planners’ lend funerals a personal touch

by Haruko Mera

Kyodo

A pack of motorcyclists leading the hearse of a fellow bike enthusiast; a small boat carrying the coffin of a fishing buff: Unique funeral arrangements such as these are starting to crop up in Japan as bereaved families add a personal touch and a nod to their late loved ones’ lifestyles and tastes.

Urban Funes Corp., which manages some 2,000 funeral ceremonies annually in the Tokyo metropolitan area, carefully tailors services to the wishes of the bereaved, consulting with relatives and, in some cases, with even former friends and workplace colleagues.

To smoothly craft and conduct such ceremonies, the company has assembled a team of professionals it tastefully describes as “ending planners.”

“What’s important is that all of us devote ourselves heart and soul to the last rite so family members are satisfied,” said Urban Funes President Takayuki Nakagawa, who founded the company in 2002 after a stint at a wedding firm.

Why the advent of so-called creative funeral services?

Partly because “many people say they don’t want much money to be spent on their funeral, but bereaved families wonder about what they can do as they have more options than before,” explained Midori Kotani, a senior researcher at Dai-ichi Life Research Institute.

To make such decisions easier, for those so inclined, Kotani suggests drawing up a form of will covering specific funeral arrangements, such as instructing how the ceremony is to be conducted and setting an upper cost limit.

According to a nationwide survey last November that asked bereaved families for details of funeral services they had attended in the past 30 months, the average cost of holding one came to ¥1.3 million. More than half of the respondents said funerals they had arranged were attended by fewer than 60 mourners.

As this was the first survey of its kind, there are no data to compare the findings to.

There is no doubt stripped-down funeral services have become popular in recent years, but while a modest service may be the answer for some families, adding dashes of originality appears to be an emerging trend among others.

“In particular, the bubble-era generation has a strong desire to see off their loved ones in their own way,” said Michiyasu Ando, a senior official at Hibiya-Kadan Floral Co., referring to people who started their working career at the pinnacle of Japan’s economic prosperity in the late 1980s and whose parents are now nearing their 80s.

Last year, Hibiya-Kadan, a major flower retailer that has branched out into the funeral service business, handled around 500 funerals in the Tokyo metropolitan area and other regions. Most of them were modest ceremonies involving only a small group of close relatives and friends.

Although the standard ceremonies managed by Hibiya-Kadan are simple affairs, the company is open to individual requests from bereaved families, such as using flower-covered easels as signposts indicating the way to the ceremony hall or replacing a traditional funeral meal with Western-style dining.

In February, the company launched a service to florally decorate the beds of deceased residents of elderly care centers or hospitals so that people around them can say goodbye before the body is removed, amid growing requests to have the body transported directly to a crematorium.

Hibiya-Kadan also offers a “funeral seminar” program that provides an initiation into practical affairs surrounding a funeral, and which promises to unveil the secrets of arranging “a funeral with smiling faces.”

Hibiya-Kadan’s foray into the business was inspired by one customer’s request to have an altar adorned with roses, the favorite flower of the deceased, instead of the usual chrysanthemums.