National / Social Issues

A decade after pivotal legal battle, embalming on rise as Japanese seek dignity for the dead

by Hidetoshi Takada

Kyodo

A documentary television program and the death of a number of close friends led Takashi Uya to find his calling in life — to give Japanese dignity in death.

Uya, 40, saw three of his close friends die while he was still in his teens — one in a traffic accident, another from altitude sickness and the other of leukemia.

The families of the deceased lamented that their loved ones’ bodies were in such poor condition that they did not want mourners, such as Uya, to view them at their funeral. It was all the more painful because the practice of embalming for aesthetic reasons had not yet become commonplace in Japan.

Uya still clearly remembers a late-night television documentary he watched in the early 1990s when he was in his mid-teens. The program was about a preservation technique that had been introduced from the United States. Uya knew at that moment that he would make his life experience about improving others in death.

Embalming involves a surgical procedure that preserves cadavers, preventing them from spreading infections, while restoring the person’s natural appearance. Although it has a long history in antiquity, it emerged as a modern practice in the mid-19th century during the American Civil War as a process to prepare dead soldiers’ bodies before they were sent home to their families.

Japan’s first embalming was conducted in 1988 with the help of foreign experts, according to Japan’s International Funeral Science Association, or IFSA. Uya, head of the embalming team at Koekisha Co., the nation’s largest funeral provider, is one of a group of those early Japanese embalmers.

The practice gained widespread recognition in Japan when foreign embalmers contributed to preserving those killed in disaster-stricken areas in Kobe after the 1995 Great Hanshin-Awaji Earthquake. Around 6,400 people died in the temblor.

The popular and award-winning 2008 film “Okuribito” (“Departures”) also led to the practice becoming more generally understood, with the main character’s journey providing a perspective that had not previously been explored in Japan.

Embalming was given legal footing in 2006 after a period of years in the early 2000s when Koekisha was hit with a Supreme Court lawsuit alleging that embalming can damage a corpse. Now, as long as the process meets the voluntary standards set by IFSA, it can be legally undertaken.

The practice of embalming has become more popular with Japan’s changing demographics, most notably in 2005, when deaths surpassed births for the first time since World War II. In 2016, the tally was 1.3 million, according to government data.

Families choosing to embalm loved ones totaled 37,593 last year after growing annually at a pace of 8.9 percent between 2005 and 2016, far outpacing the increase in the annual death rate over the same period, according to IFSA and government statistics.

“Japanese embalmers began increasing around the mid-2000s,” said IFSA Secretary Yuji Kato, 50. There are about 100 active IFSA certified embalmers in Japan.

One of the main reasons behind the rise in demand is how modern medical treatment is changing people’s bodies, Uya said.

“Corpses now are different from those 10 to 15 years ago,” he said.

Cancer kills nearly 30 percent of Japanese each year, almost twice as much as heart disease, the second-biggest killer, according to health ministry data. This prompted the government to put the Cancer Control Act into force in 2007, aiming to provide better palliative care.

“More drips and medications such as pain relievers are infused into patients (in their treatment), leaving their bodies swollen rather than emaciated,” Uya said, adding that nutrients facilitate the development of bacteria in corpses.

During the several-day mourning period before cremation, increased water in the body causes “faster deterioration and smell in corpses even in just one day,” Uya said, explaining why embalming is necessary.

With the number of deaths constantly on the rise, the funerary industry has naturally become more competitive and prices have dropped accordingly.

Newcomers compete with traditional funeral services, offering reasonable fees via the internet to attract more clients, while revealing the previously opaque pricing structure for traditional services.

The trend has resulted in more families preferring simpler ceremonies or only cremation services. The average fee for a funeral service has fallen over the past two decades to an industry estimate of less than ¥1 million ($9,000), according to those involved.

However, even though the total cost has fallen, “People still seek a better farewell for their loved ones,” since respect for the deceased remains unchanged, Kato of IFSA said.

“They feel it is worth it when they can see a peaceful look on their deceased family member’s (face) in the coffin, especially a caregiver who supported them during a long fight with an illness,” Uya said.

Of more than 10,000 funerals handled by Koekisha in a year, nearly 60 percent employ embalming at a cost of ¥150,000 — five times as expensive as when dry ice is used to preserve corpses.

In April, 22 students enrolled at Nihon Human Ceremony College, the only Japanese institution that trains embalmers. The college, in Hiratsuka, Kanagawa Prefecture, has seen enrollment spike along with growth in demand — the school doubled its enrollment limit to around 20 in 2015.

The grandmother of Mutsuki Honda, an 18-year old freshman, passed away in her second year of junior high school, leaving her family with a memory of their relative that differed greatly from her appearance when she was alive.

“The dead were somebodies’ beloved grandfather or grandmother,” Honda said. “Each family has its own ideal farewell. I want to be an embalmer to make it come true.”

According to Ritsuko Saito, 48, who works in the college’s enrollment office, several applicants, new high school graduates in particular, cancel their enrollment every year as parents, especially fathers, express opposition to their decision to make embalming a career.

“Embalming can transform a dismembered body into a normal corpse, for example, should a son die in a traffic accident. This job can be appreciated from the viewpoint of the bereaved,” Saito said.

The common perception of undertakers in Japanese society being discriminated against because of the social taboos against people who deal with death has not changed much since Uya’s parents opposed his decision.

As described in “Okuribito,” which won awards at home and abroad in 2009, the wife of the protagonist, who makes his living as a mortician, refuses to let her husband touch her with his “corpse-tainted” hands, but later comes to respect his work.

Around 25 years after his friends’ deaths, Uya is pursuing dignity for the deceased. His team of 23 embalmers at Koekisha, nearly a quarter of the total in Japan, conducts about 5,500 procedures annually.

Uya has dedicated his life to embalming to gain some solace. But he still feels that regardless of his efforts to improve others’ experiences with death, “I have not been able to (properly) bid farewell to my friends.”

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