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‘Corpse hotels’ offer dignity for the dead as Japan’s crematoriums struggle to keep up

by

Staff Writer

Packed among houses and small factories in a semi-industrial area of Kawasaki, Sou Sou resembles a regular hotel. How it differs is that it serves the dead.

Dubbed an itai hoteru (corpse hotel), Sou Sou is a storage venue for bodies before they are taken to be cremated. It offers a private place for family members and other mourners to pay their respects.

In rapidly aging Japan, where most bodies are cremated, there are sometimes waiting lists at crematoriums. It can take a week or more before a slot is available, especially in urban areas.

For ¥9,000 per day, Sou Sou offers people a place for a body to stay and for relatives to spend time in mourning until a crematorium can take them.

“The business has been profitable,” said Hisao Takegishi, president of Sou Sou, adding that the occupancy rate was around 70 to 80 percent over the past year.

Bodies can be stored in morgues at crematoriums, but facilities there are little more than bleak, refrigerated locker rooms with limited visiting hours.

“It is far from an ideal place to mourn the loss of their loved ones,” said Takegishi, who worked as a funeral director for more than a decade. “I wanted to provide people with a place other than a morgue at crematoriums to mourn and relax, just like at home.”

At Sou Sou, families can decorate the rooms with flowers and memorabilia of the deceased. And although it is legally registered as a storage facility, families can spend the night if they wish, sleeping on couches and ordering out for food, Takegishi said.

Other businesses that provide similar services often offer comprehensive packages, ranging from simple storage to complete funeral packages.

In 2010, Nichiryoku Co., a Tokyo-based funeral service, opened hotel-like facilities named Lastel in Yokohama and Shin-Yokohama. The company’s vice president, Kimiaki Takemura, said the nine-story building in Shin-Yokohama is fully equipped with rooms to store bodies and also has funeral halls, banquet rooms, Buddhist altars and showrooms that display different types of coffins.

“Everything you need is in this building.” said Takemura. “Offering the whole package in one building is good for our business and also for the bereaved family.”

Customer numbers have been on the rise, but sales per client have declined a little due to people preferring smaller and simpler funerals, he said. He is optimistic that the trend will reverse: “I believe the needs will surely rise,” he said.

The National Institute of Population and Social Security Research has forecast the number of deaths to peak at 1.67 million by 2039, a nearly 30 percent increase from 2015.

Given this expected surge, Itaru Takeda, head of Kasouken, an association of cremation and funeral studies, said densely populated municipalities need to build more crematoriums.

Still, facilities where bodies can be cremated are difficult to build. They usually face strong opposition from residents. According to Takeda, some projects have been stalled for more than a decade.

Speeding up the rotation of incinerators may help solve the problem. But in Japan, rituals where final farewells are said and the ashes are placed into urns are culturally important, so facilities cannot operate like factories, Takeda said.

“When the population concentrates in small areas, we need to have welfare facilities to cater to residents’ needs from birth to death, such as hospitals, schools, nurseries and fire stations,” Takeda said. “A crematorium, too, is essential.”

He added: “Death is not something you encounter every day, so many tend to see crematoriums as something unrelated to their lives, but we really should think of it as a more imminent issue.”

Like crematoriums, corpse hotels usually face local opposition. Back in 2014, when Takegishi opened Sou Sou in Kawasaki, more than 100 local residents organized a campaign of resistance and demanded its closure.

“Their biggest argument was that the hotel was creepy. … Some said they couldn’t sleep knowing dead bodies were transported to and from the nearby building,” Takegishi said. One junior high school girl told him she was afraid that a ghost might creep into her room.

But Takegishi firmly believes his business helps the grieving process, soothing the bereaved.

“This facility is not enough to cater to the increasing needs. … I would welcome more people to enter the business, and I hope this will become one of many services relatives of the deceased can choose from.”

Two years on, banners opposing the hotel can still be seen hanging in the neighborhood. But after several local deaths — in which the families used the facility — sentiment is changing, Takegishi said.

“I believe I will eventually gain their acceptance,” he said.