The smell of mold wafted through the small underground room at a municipal-run cemetery in the city of Saitama in late November, where around 600 unclaimed urns filled the shelves.
Pointing at the only vacant rack in the vault, Saitama official Satoru Shimizu said it won’t be long before it runs out of space, as unclaimed remains have been on the rise in recent years.
“It’s OK for now, but it will eventually be full,” said Shimizu, an assistant manager in the life and welfare division of the Saitama Municipal Government. “It’s a bit sad to think this bleak place is the final destination” for some people.
Saitama is one of many municipalities in this rapidly graying nation struggling to deal with cremains — the ashes and bone fragments remaining after a body has been cremated — that nobody comes to collect. In the past, unclaimed remains were usually those of people whose identity was untraceable.
Municipal officials say that today most of the unclaimed remains are traceable. Many of the dead had living relatives, but the kin refused to cremate the bodies or collect their ashes for reasons often to do with the lack of a close relationship with the deceased, they say.
This is one of the grim realities of Japan’s aging society, where more people are aging and living alone, subsisting on a small income or on welfare, observers say.
The National Institute of Population and Social Security Research (NIPSSR) estimates the number of deaths will grow to 1.65 million in 2035 from 1.29 million in 2015. Government data, meanwhile, shows that 13.3 percent of men and 21.1 percent of women aged 65 or over were living alone in 2015, compared with 4.3 percent of men and 11.2 percent of women in 1980.
When nobody comes forward to claim the dead, municipalities have the legal responsibility to cremate them, incurring costs of around ¥200,000 to ¥250,000 per case. Municipalities are also facing difficulty finding enough space to store the swelling volumes of urns, which they usually keep for a few years in case someone shows up to collect them.
Although there are no official figures for the number of unclaimed urns across Japan, in the case of Saitama the number of newly added cremains surged from 33 in 2003 to 133 in 2016. In total, the city kept more than 1,600 urns last year. Since the number is expected to increase, Saitama is scheduled to open a new facility in 2020 to bury the ashes of the neglected.
“I guess that’s the only measure we can take for now — to bury them together after storing them for a few years,” Shimizu said.
It has long been considered the job of the next of kin to look after the dead. But with the rise of nuclear families, this notion has been blurred as people become more self-reliant.
Midori Kotani, a senior researcher at Dai-ichi Life Research Institute, said the weakening of extended family ties are one reason behind the rise of unclaimed ashes.
She also pointed to Japan’s increasing life expectancy as another contributing factor.
According to welfare ministry data, 50.4 percent of males who died in 2015 were over 80 years old, compared with 33 percent in 2000. The figure for women is 73 percent.
“That means children of the deceased are also seniors. They often don’t have (financial or physical) room to tend to their dead family members,” Kotani said.”The system of depending on families to shoulder all those things, including looking after family graves, is no longer functioning.”
Given such changing demographic and social norms, Kotani said people should prepare for their deaths without depending on relatives, such as arranging a grave together with their elderly nursery home neighbors. She also suggested creating community graves where people can be buried for free.
Seeking to reduce the number of unclaimed cremains ending up in a storage vault for the neglected, the city of Yokosuka, Kanagawa Prefecture, launched a program in 2015 to support low-income elderly people without anyone to depend on to prepare for their death.
Referred to as “ending plan support,” the program offers residents, whose monthly income is less than ¥180,000, have savings of ¥2.25 million or less, and whose property is worth ¥5 million or less, to pay while they are still alive for their cremation and final resting place.
The price is around ¥250,000, about the same the city pays to cremate and store unclaimed ashes. Participants can choose where to be cremated and have their remains stored, according to Kazuyuki Kitami, a deputy manager in the Yokosuka welfare division.
The city notifies funeral operators when those citizens die and follow up to be sure the tasks were performed as promised.
Since its launch, 23 people have registered with the program. Of them, three have passed away and have been housed and looked after in a well-kept cemetery at a temple, Kitami said.
Like Saitama, the number of unclaimed sets of cremains in Yokosuka increased to 60 in 2014 from 16 in 2003, according to Kitami. Unable to store all of the unclaimed ashes in a municipal vault for the unclaimed, the city removed 600 of them over the past decade.
They took the ashes from the urns and buried them together in a potter’s field.
“I felt really sad. … I wondered if it was OK to drag them out of the vault and put them in a hole,” Kitami said.
But after the launch of the program, the number of unclaimed cremains declined to 36 in 2016. The drop also has to do with more persistent efforts by city staff to persuade relatives of the deceased to claim the remains, Kitami noted.
“We want to reach out to more people who may want to register with the program,” he said. “And hopefully we will see no more residents ending up as unclaimed remains.”