If someone dies whose name is not known, or who leaves behind no money or known kin, the person’s ashes may end up in an anonymous grave with other “muen botoke” remains.

The term refers to either a dead person whose identity is not known or someone who died but had no known living relatives or financial resources to arrange for a standard grave. The names of the deceased, if known, remain only on muen botoke records kept briefly by local governments.

A temple that has voluntarily been performing free religious rites for muen botoke has recently begun offering what may be the least expensive graves in Japan as an alternative to an anonymous grave.

For 100,000 yen, the ashes of an individual or family can be placed in an urn occupying a permanent spot inside an 8.5-meter-tall granite Tower of Eternity, or Kuon-no-hi.

The names of the deceased are engraved on black granite plates that cover the surface of the tower, which is located at a branch of Genjuin Temple in Yokoze, Saitama Prefecture.

“Japanese by tradition want to have their own graves, even though they may not leave anybody behind (to pay tribute after their death),” said 63-year-old Kaijo Akita, the chief priest of Genjuin, whose main temple, in Tokyo’s Katsushika Ward, traces its history back to the 16th century.

Akita said the 100,000 yen cost actually works out as a loss for the temple at present, but the fee was designed to be affordable. The temple plans to begin publicizing the monument at nursing homes and other welfare facilities for the elderly beginning next month.

The tower is the brainchild of Akita, whose temple has accepted muen botoke since he took the helm in 1969.

Each year the temple receives around 350 urns containing muen botoke ashes from ward offices, welfare offices or funeral service companies. This figure accounts for about 80 percent of such deaths in Tokyo, Akita said.

The temple, which has so far accepted more than 5,000 sets of muen botoke remains, initially keeps the urns in a cenotaph in the event that relatives show up to retrieve them.

This is rare, however, and the temple buries the ashes mingled together after holding a Buddhist rite every March.

Akita said the new form of grave is a more respectful alternative to an anonymous one.

“How to treat muen botoke in a respectful manner is a major administrative task for local governments,” a Katsushika Ward official said.

“If a proper grave can be made available at a low price, it will be good for the souls of not just muen botoke but all people in this era of economic troubles.”

It has been Akita’s policy since he took over the temple to offer graves for the lowest possible price. For instance, the temple sold family plots at a minimum price of 1.09 million yen on newly acquired land near the eastern end of Katsushika Ward in March.

The price was roughly equivalent to the cost of the land and a granite tombstone. The temple sold all 560 available grave sites in the park within a year, Akita said.

A family grave in the Tokyo area normally costs millions of yen.

Akita said he has also made other efforts to reduce the financial burden on grave owners.

While temples usually rely heavily on donations from “danka,” relatives of people whose remains are kept at a temple, Genjuin never solicits such money, according to Akita. The charges levied for funerals and other Buddhist services are also around one-third of those normally charged by temples, he said.

“When I was an apprentice at a major Tokyo temple, I saw priests and their families live lives of luxury thanks to the donations from families,” said Akita, whose father passed away before he entered elementary school. Akita spent his teen years and his early 20s as an apprentice at the major temple.

Akita said discounts are made possible by his policy of pursuing a large volume of graves and rites.

By offering the least expensive grave sites, the temple has steadily increased the number of danka from 180 at the time Akita took charge to more than 5,000 today. This has raised the number of occasions for funeral and other religious rites, allowing the temple to operate without donations, he said.

The temple has hired six other priests of different denominational backgrounds to perform the proper rites for all of the deceased within its precincts.

While Akita stressed that his low-cost policy is based on his religious ideals, a fellow priest familiar with Genjuin’s management attributed the temple’s unique operations to Akita’s business sense.

“Even Kuon-no-hi may have a potential for good business if the nation’s current economic slump continues,” the priest said.

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