In Japan, 99 percent of the dead are cremated and the ashes are traditionally buried in the family grave — scattering the ashes in the hills or the sea has long been considered taboo.
So when well-known actor Yujiro Ishihara died in 1987, his family refrained from scattering his remains in his beloved Pacific Ocean right away. Instead, they did it discreetly years later to avoid any possible public controversy.
In the last few years, however, amid growing social acceptance for unconventional funerals, even some mainstream funeral companies have begun offering services, known as “shizenso,” to scatter ashes in nature.
A pioneer of shizenso is Mutsuhiko Yasuda, who coined the term. His group, now known as the nonprofit organization Grave-Free Promotion Society, conducted the first service in 1991.
The NPO currently has around 11,000 people registered to have their ashes scattered.
It has so far held 836 services consisting of simple nonreligious ceremonies for the ashes of 1,449 people.
Most of the locations have been in seas near Japan, but some services have taken place abroad, such as in the Ganges River and the Gobi Desert.
“There’s definitely been a change in the last decade,” said Yasuda, 76. “Both young and old are interested in having their ashes scattered in nature, returning to Mother Nature. They don’t like the thought of being confined in a dark, stuffy grave.”
The yearly growth in membership partly reflects the increasing difficulty of keeping a household grave, Yasuda said.
“Society is aging, and with more nuclear families and single-person households, having a family grave has become a burden for many people,” he said, referring to the fees paid to temples for prayer services.
Environmental concerns may also encourage nature burials, Yasuda said, noting that to make a graveyard, hills and trees and stone must be cut away.
The owner of Kaze Co. said he thinks the main reason for the growing demand is the trend for individualism. The 5-year-old company offers services such as mixing ashes with flower seeds and strewing them in the hills.
“People feel it’s kind of feudalistic to be bound to the tradition of the household grave, said Hasegawa, the 56-year-old owner who declined to give his first name. “They want to assert their own identity.”
He said his clients are primarily single women or women who do not wish to be buried in the same grave as their mothers-in-law, or people like hospice workers and nurses who often face death in their daily lives. “They don’t place importance on the body after death, or think that the spirit resides in the remains,” he said.
Hasegawa said he has received anonymous harassing telephone calls from people he suspects are acting on behalf of Buddhist priests.
“There are people who apparently don’t like what we do. Buddhist priests consider funerals to be their territory and so would naturally be opposed to shizenso.”
Yuko Miyasaka, 53, a priest of the Shingon Buddhist sect at Shokoji Temple in Nagano Prefecture, said he has never heard of priests putting pressure on funeral companies but added priests share worries about the spread of nature burials.
“We are dismayed. If the media didn’t make such a fuss about shizenso, people wouldn’t get the idea that it is acceptable,” he said.
Miyasaka said scattering ashes shows a lack of respect to the dead. “Just throwing the ashes like unwanted objects is disrespectful. This is Japan, not India,” he said.
“Japan doesn’t have a sacred river like the Ganges for strewing ashes. We should preserve our unique culture for ceremonies and graves.”
Yasuda said priests may have the wrong impression that shizenso means doing away with Buddhist tradition altogether.
“If people choose, they can have a conventional Buddhist funeral before their ashes are scattered, and of course they are free to keep their graves,” he said.
“But the reality is that many are looking for other ways,” Yasuda said, noting that many people question the expenses for funerals and posthumous Buddhist names that can cost millions of yen.
Hasegawa said that given the ongoing economic slump, the low cost of a shizenso ceremony, which can cost as little as 50,000 yen, may have appeal. “But it’s not always a matter of cost since some people are willing to spend as much as 1 million yen to send ashes to space on U.S. rockets,” he said.
Whatever the style, Yasuda said he hopes more people will be freed from the belief that they have to be buried in graves.
He said misconceptions still linger that shizenso is illegal despite statements released in 1991 by the justice and health ministries that there are no problems as long as moderation is practiced.
The exact definition of moderation has yet to be determined, Yasuda said. “Obviously though, services should be held in remote areas and cremated remains should be finely grounded and unrecognizable as human remains.”
Hasegawa said care should also be taken when throwing flowers or personal belongings into the sea together with the ashes.
“Things that can’t decompose such as ribbons and plastic wrapping for flowers, and glasses and walking sticks mustn’t be thrown in the sea,” he said. “Shizenso is about respecting nature, and we must make sure we practice it.”