This is o-bon week in Japan, when the dead come back to visit the living briefly, so it's as good a time as any to talk about the high cost of dying here. In 2009, 1.069 million humans were born in Japan as opposed to 1.44 million who died. Whatever that says about population shifts, morticians are obviously set to make a better living than obstetricians and midwives. In fact, the funeral business is doing horrendously well in Japan. The average funeral in Japan costs ¥2.31 million, about five times the average cost in the No. 2 funeral country, the United States (about ¥444,000). From there things just get reasonable: Korea, ¥373,000; Germany, ¥198,000; UK, ¥123,000.

The above figures are from theologian Hiroshi Shimada's book "Soshiki wa Iranai" (Funerals Are Unnecessary). Obviously, Shimada doesn't think much of the funeral business, mainly because it's very much a business, even the so-called spiritual side. As the world now knows from the Oscar-winning movie "Okuribito," the Japanese take very special care of dead bodies, but all that beauty of purpose and elaborate ritual comes with a price, and funeral homes try to make it easy for bereaved families by pulling all the various ceremonial necessities into a package that takes into consideration cremation, flowers; and because people are busy nowadays, the various time memorials, like the wake, the 7th-day observation, the 35th-day observation, etc., are all combined into a one-day funeral ceremony. The average price of the package is ¥1.5 million, with an extra ¥386,000 for feeding guests. This latter cost can be offset by the cash donations mourners traditionally bring to funerals, and Shimada again figures the average amount they will fork out is ¥750,000.

But all those sums still don't add up to ¥2.31 million. The remainder is the payment that the family of the deceased pays to the temple where the remains will be interred. The priest who prays over the soul of the dead receives anywhere from ¥50,000 to ¥150,000, and that's just for the prayer. Shimada points out what a racket this is by revealing that no one really knows how much one pays a Buddhist priest for a prayer, and so some people don't take any chances and just give him way too much. Of course, he doesn't refuse.