Cremation has been the norm for dealing with the deceased in modern-day Japan — where communities are crowded and land is scarce.
One major exception has been emperors and empresses, who have been ceremoniously buried.
But that may change. Recently, Emperor Akihito and Empress Michiko voiced a desire to be cremated.
Following are questions and answers regarding cremation:
What percentage of people who die are cremated?
Almost 100 percent. Health ministry data show that in 2010, the cremation rate was 99.94 percent, the highest in the world.
According to the nonprofit organization Japan Society of Environmental Cremation, there were 1,545 crematoriums nationwide as of October 2010.
Why is cremation so widespread?
The tradition was believed introduced along with Buddhism. Unlike Christians, Jews and Muslims who believe in resurrection or an afterlife, a main tenet of Buddhism is reincarnation — the concept of the soul leaving the physical body after death and seeking new life in a new body.
The first recorded cremation took place in 700, but for a long time, it was a special ritual mainly for monks and people of high rank. Cremation only became common after the war amid rapid urbanization and improved crematory technology, according to the book “Sekai no Soso” (“World Funerals”), compiled by monk Kodo Matsunami.
Are common citizens barred from being buried?
No, there are no national laws that mandate only cremation. Some local governments, including Tokyo and Osaka, however, have ordinances that require cremation due to lack of cemetery space or for sanitary reasons.
Aside from the Imperial family, generally only Muslims in Japan opt for burials. There are two burial sites managed by the Japan Muslim Association, one in Yamanashi Prefecture and the other in the town of Yoichi in west Hokkaido.
The Japan Islamic Trust, based in Toshima Ward, Tokyo, has been trying to create a graveyard in Ashikaga, Tochigi Prefecture, but strong local opposition has stalled the effort.
An Ashikaga official said residents are mainly opposed because of “aversion to burials and concerns over environmental destruction” at the proposed site.
Why did the Emperor and Empress indicate they wanted to be cremated?
One deciding factor may be cost. Imperial funeral processions and entombments are funded by the state. In April, Shingo Haketa, then grand steward of the Imperial Household Agency, told reporters that the Emperor and Empress wanted to be cremated in a “simple” ceremony.
The funeral expenses, including the mausoleum for Emperor Hirohito, for example, cost ¥9.7 billion, while the government paid ¥2.5 billion for his consort, Empress Nagako, after she passed away in 2000.
Most recently, the government allocated ¥130 million from the fiscal 2012 reserve fund to pay the funeral, cremation and urn burial costs for the Emperor’s cousin, Prince Tomohito, who died in early June.
How were the thousands of fatalities from the Great East Japan Earthquake handled?
Because of the massive number of casualties generated by the natural disasters on March 11, 2011, most of whom were tsunami victims, the health ministry announced that the remains could be cremated or buried without local permits.
Many crematoriums in the disaster zone were inoperable, particularly because survivors needed any available fuel for heat and cooking. Six cities and towns in Miyagi Prefecture thus buried 2,000 people in temporary graves. The dead had been expected to be exhumed and cremated after two years.
However, Hajime Himonya, editor-in-chief of funeral customs magazine Sogi, said most of the bodies in Tohoku have already been dug up at the request of relatives and formally cremated.
It was a difficult process because the dead were interred in wooden coffins generally used for cremations, and thus were not well-preserved, he said.
“The caskets that were dug up had collapsed and decomposition had progressed. Bodies had come apart and the coffins were filled with bodily fluids and blood,” Himonya said. “The exhumation process was extremely difficult.”
Although a similar declaration followed the 1995 Great Hanshin Earthquake, local governments managed to avoid temporary burials and cremated the bodies soon after the quake.
Could the disaster zone have avoided provisional burials?
Experts believe so. If authorities in the zone had coordinated their efforts better with the crematorium industry, cremations could have been conducted in other areas.
Himonya said that temporary burial — which seemed inevitable at the time — is a practice that should be avoided during disasters for the sake of the next of kin.
“Cremation has become established, and for the next of kin, their grief does not end until their loved ones are cremated,” Himonya said. “Looking back, I think we could have avoided temporary burials. It is clear now that temporary burials must be avoided in the future.”
What is the cremation rate in other countries?
Burials are still the norm around the world, especially in Christian and Islamic societies, but the global trend is gradually leaning toward cremation for various reasons, including lack of burial sites, costs and environmental issues.
Cremations are rising in the United States. The National Funeral Directors Association noted that in 1960, only 3.56 percent of the deceased were cremated, but by 2010, 40.62 percent were. One of the main reasons more people opt for cremation in the U.S. is that burials, including embalming and caskets, are very expensive.
Most people in Britain are also choosing cremation. According to the Cremation of Society of Great Britain, 34.7 percent of the dead were cremated in 1960, but by 2010, it was 73.15 percent.
“It is believed that the transition from burials to cremation occurred (in the U.K.) due to the changes in social environment that affected funeral customs, including . . . the increase of foreign laborers and the weakening of the church’s authority,” according to the book, “Sekai no Soso.”
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