Business

Funeral entrepreneur champions affordable rites

by Tetsushi Kajimoto

Reserving one’s own funeral is something of a rarity — if not unheard of.

But John Kamm, president of Tokyo-based startup All Nations Society Corp., believes “seizen-yoyaku,” or “preneed” funeral reservations, will catch on with the Japanese soon.

Since entering the funeral business in June 2003, the 35-year-old American entrepreneur said his company has received more than 2,000 reservations.

Kamm started offering preneed services after learning that many people had been “ripped off” by other funeral homes. He said many of these companies tend to take advantage of the bereaved by charging exorbitant fees at a time when they may not know what a reasonable price is.

“The major problem is that for all these products, like flowers, foods and gifts, and even monks and a hearse, companies pay kickbacks to the funeral company,” he said.

Kamm went on to boast that the transparency of All Nations Society’s pricing has proved popular with certain customers, many of whom are white-collar elites who “don’t mind talking about their death or paying a lot of money,” he said.

“Our customers are those who want to know where the money is going and don’t want to waste it,” said Kamm, who started the company just before getting his MBA from Waseda University.

For cremations, the company charges 500,000 yen and draws up a written estimate to maintain transparency.

“Other companies may say 150,000 yen for cremation to get customers in,” he said. “But they will then keep pressuring the family to buy a bunch of nonsense things, like an expensive urn to honor their family member’s death, and end up charging up to 3 million yen.”

Kamm said funeral businesses and monks share what he calls a “cartel” relationship. As an example, he cited a recent incident in which tax authorities found that a Tokyo-based funeral company hid 800 million yen in taxable income by falsely reporting kickbacks from Buddhist monks as tax-free religious offerings.

When Kamm started out, he conducted a telephone survey on about 600 people about funerals they were involved with and discovered many had a “bad experience.”

“They said things like ‘My mother died and the funeral company cheated me,’ ” Kamm said. “Every single one had the same story. I couldn’t believe it. That was when I thought about a preneed service, and that’s how we started the whole thing.”

Kamm said funerals in Japan, particularly in big cities like Tokyo, are getting smaller, because baby boomers from elsewhere are starting to die old with little money and few friends left to mourn them.

He compares the situation with the United States in the mid-1980s, when funeral services shifted from traditional to simple, or from interment to cremation, after a federal regulation took effect to prevent funerary companies from charging excessive fees.

“Our business in preneed funeral services is going to boom in five years in Japan,” Kamm predicted, citing what happened in the U.S. “We hope the number of preneed funeral reservations will double every year for the next five years, and hopefully we’re going to lead the industry on this.”

The key to success, he said, is how to maintain favorable relations with Japanese companies as well.

“I don’t have a single relationship with a foreign company here,” Kamm said. “Every time we bring another foreign company in, it makes it harder for Japanese vendors to trust us. That’s the safest way to do it in Japan.”