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Staff writer

Keiko Tachibana sees only one problem with cardboard coffins, the latest development in the funeral industry: Customers often mistake them for beds.

Tachibana, director of new business development at Tokyo-based Tri-Wall, laughed and said, “One woman climbed into a display, gave a sigh of comfort and fell asleep.”

Produced by American company Elder Davis, the Elderlite coffins are made of Tri-Wall’s triple-wall corrugated fiberboard, which is commonly used for packaging heavy items. The coffins will be available in Japan at the end of the month.

Coffins such as Elderlite represent a new trend in the Japanese funeral industry to offer funerals that focus on the personality of the deceased, rather than ritual. Covered in jacquard, lined with velvet and carrying names such as “Silk Road,” “Blue Planet” and “Crimson,” the coffins have a Western-style lid that can be opened fully to show the torso of the deceased.

The design was chosen to allow mourners a more intimate farewell than what is offered by the traditional Japanese coffin, which has a small window over the face. “You’re saying goodbye to someone you love, so you want to have their image ingrained in your memory — isn’t that the point of a funeral?” Tachibana asked.

Disillusioned with “package funerals,” a multitude of rituals and funeral costs that averaged 3.85 million yen in 1996, people are joining citizens’ groups like Soso no Jiyu wo Susumeru Kai (Group to Promote Freedom of Mortuary Ritual), which promotes alternative burials such as “sankotsu,” or the scattering of ashes. Membership has ballooned to over 7,000, up from 200 in 1991, when the group was established.

Shuichi Haryu, planning department director of Sendai’s Sugawara Funeral Parlor, says he understands why traditional Buddhist funerals are under criticism. “You pay a lot of money in ‘ofuse’ (suggested offerings to priests), you listen to a priest chant prayers you don’t understand and you run this way and that, frantic to get everything done properly,” he said. “And when it’s all over, you realize that you never had the chance to say goodbye.”

A mortuary’s continued growth will depend on how well it can offer alternatives that reflect the personality and preferences of the deceased, Haryu said. In addition to cardboard coffins, Sugawara’s new options include pink-toned “unreligious altars” and “space funerals,” in which ashes of the deceased are launched into orbit. “There is a real sense of crisis within the mortuary industry — the traditional funeral may very well disappear,” he said.

Tachibana hopes the intimate design and environmental appeal of the cardboard coffins will help them capture a modest 1 percent of the market. “For every tree you cut down, you can produce one wooden coffin. But from the same tree, you can produce seven paper coffins,” Tachibana said.

In a country where at least 98 percent of the deceased are cremated and roughly 700,000 coffins are incinerated annually, cardboard coffins make sense, she added. They also burn in about five minutes, which is more fuel-efficient, Tachibana said. Company tests show that no exhaust is emitted from burning the coffins.

“This product responds to the needs of the times, in which we face an aging society in a world of limited resources,” said Yuji Suzuki, president of Tri-Wall.

Priced between 78,000 yen and 178,000 yen, Elderlite coffins are a fraction of the cost of plain, white cedar coffins that can run as high as 1.3 million yen. A percentage of proceeds will go to a company fund for replanting trees.

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