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When a citizens’ group scattered human ashes at sea 10 years ago, they revived a burial practice unseen in Japan for more than 400 years.

Human ashes are released in the sea off Kanagawa Prefecture in June 1997.

Until 1991, “sankotsu,” literally the scattering of bones, had been unacceptable; burying ashes in cemeteries still remains the norm.

And while the government does not object to the alternative burial rite, the precedent set a decade ago has not settled the debate over whether to regulate sankotsu funerals, which some people fear may cause emotional or environmental problems.

Some sankotsu advocates strongly oppose being regulated, saying people should be free to choose their own style of funeral.

When Soso no Jiyu Wo Susumeru Kai, or The Grave-Free Promotion Society, carried out that first sankotsu funeral 22 km off Kanagawa Prefecture a decade ago, it was the antithesis of a conventional Buddhist-style funeral, in which ashes are placed in an urn and buried under an ancestral tomb.

The conventional style dates back to the late Edo period (1603-1867), when the shogunate forced all people to register at Buddhist temples in an effort to eliminate Christianity. Responsibility for graves was later transferred from temples to individual families.

In the postwar era, however, this system has become harder to maintain. With increasing urbanization and the growth of nuclear families, people have lost interest in their ancestral heritage. More and more graves are being left unattended.

Meanwhile, cities were running out of space for cemeteries and costs rose to between 3 million yen and 4 million yen per grave site. People were ready for an alternative.

The Grave-Free Promotion Society, seeing a chance to solve these problems and address people’s right to choose how they are treated after their death, moved to revive an old Japanese custom that had not been been practiced since before the Edo period.

Sankotsu appears to have gained support among today’s Japanese; a government survey conducted in 1998 shows a support rate of almost 75 percent.

The society, which has 10,000 members across the country, has performed sankotsu 564 times, scattering the ashes of 1,005 people in the sea and, occasionally, in mountains.

The government approved sankotsu in 1991, saying it would not be considered illegal as long as it was done with “moderation.”

Sankotsu does not violate laws governing the abandonment of corpses, according to the Justice Ministry. And the law banning burials from being conducted outside cemeteries does not say anything about sankotsu, according to the Health, Labor and Welfare Ministry.

However, a health ministry advisory panel reviewing issues surrounding graves and mortuary rituals recommended in 1998 that sankotsu be regulated.

“We should at least have minimum rules if we are to promote sankotsu,” said Michitaro Urakawa, a professor of law at Waseda University, who served as chairman on the advisory panel.

“If the ashes are those of your relatives, you have special feelings. But they may make others feel unpleasant,” he said, asking how people feel about having ashes scattered in rivers that are also a source of drinking water.

Urakawa argued the law on graveyards and burials, which has not been changed in more than 50 years, should be updated.

The law was made before cremations became dominant, he said, “But now that cremation prevails in Japan, the law should deal with the present situation.”

But Mutsuhiko Yasuda, founder of the Grave-Free Promotion Society, opposes moves to regulate funeral services.

“The ashes are totally harmless,” he said. “As long as we scatter the ashes carefully so as not to bother others, individuals’ choices must be respected and voluntary rules are enough.”

Regulation would only serve to protect the vested interests of those in funeral-related industries and the bureaucrats who have close ties with them, Yasuda said.

Yasuda admitted, however, that some people outside his group perform sankotsu without consideration, polluting the sea, for example, by not removing the plastic sleeve from flowers before throwing them in the water.

Meanwhile, there are other sankotsu advocates who want the practice regulated.

Tadashi Watanabe, president of Tokyo’s I Can Corp., a memorial service company that includes sankotsu among its services, said the lack of regulation is inconvenient because it forces the company to restrict its services.

“We want exact places designated where we can carry it out openly,” Watanabe said.

Despite the advisory panel’s recommendation, the Health, Labor and Welfare Ministry is reluctant to take action.

The ministry does not plan to revise the graveyards and burial law as it is meant to regulate cemeteries and charnel houses and not the way mortuary services are carried out, said Yusei Takagi, an official in the ministry’s environmental health division.

The ministry is not even considering introducing guidelines for local governments to set ordinances, he said, because funeral customs differ from region to region.

“Each local government should be responsible for the matter,” he said.

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