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New kinds of mortuary services are emerging in Japan to reflect diversifying values, ranging from virtual graves on the Internet to the transferal of ashes into space.

The diversification trend began with a civic movement in 1991 to promote “sankotsu,” or the scattering of ashes.

I Can Corp., a memorial services firm in Tokyo, recently launched an online grave service — www.i-can.jp/nethakamairi.htm — that allows customers to visit virtual graves over the Net.

An online grave enables people to pay respects over the Net. Optional offerings are shown on the left.

The company said the service may still be used if the person being commemorated does not have a real grave. The online service can be made accessible to anyone or can be password-protected.

The user can follow nearly the same rituals as in a real Buddhist-style grave visit: offering burning incense sticks, fruit, flowers and alcoholic drinks to the virtual grave through mouse clicks.

A photo and profile of the deceased are shown under an image of a gravestone, which has an area beside it where visitors can leave messages.

Messages left typically show both surprise at the unusual memorial method as well as appreciation of the new trend.

“I was impressed by this new way of visiting a grave, and I would like mine this way when the time comes,” wrote a man in his 40s.

An elderly woman left a message on a site commemorating her acquaintance in which she wrote that she had never believed she would be able to pay her respects after moving away from the area where her friend’s actual grave is located.

“It is very similar to playing a game on the screen,” said Tadashi Watanabe, president of I Can Corp. “But some say it is a very good idea for people who can’t visit graves so often, such as those living abroad.”

He also said online graves are no different from praying at an altar. “As long as you have faith, it doesn’t matter how you hold a service for the dead.”

As of Monday, 45 people were commemorated on the site. The online service is currently free, but Watanabe is considering charging 3,000 yen for registration and 2,000 yen as an annual fee.

The diversification trend is also spreading to outer space for those wanting an out-of-world experience in the afterlife.

The Space Memorial Service, first launched in 1997 by Celestis Inc. of the United States, has carried the ashes of 11 Japanese beyond the atmosphere since 1998.

The ashes, in 7-gram-capsules, are loaded into satellites launched from the U.S. The ashes orbit the Earth for 100 to 200 years before drifting away.

The person paying for the service can attend the launch and receive a certificate and videotape proving the event took place.

In the middle of next month, the ashes of 14 Japanese will be released into space, according to Willife K.K., the Tokyo agent for Celestis Inc. I Can Corp. also handles space funerals, which cost about 1 million yen.

But traditionalists frown upon the diversification trend. Kenji Mori, a professor at Ibaraki Christian College, believes the traditional Japanese “death ethic” is under threat.

“As long as human dignity is kept, I think various ways of mortuary rituals should be allowed because the situation and people’s values are changing,” Mori said.

But he warned that letting people exercise freedom of choice before forming a social consensus is dangerous. Some people even want their bodies fed to animals, he said.

“We must at least build a consensus in society to protect human dignity.”

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