National / Social Issues

Japanese municipalities offer services to those worried about dying alone

Kyodo

An unmarried Kanagawa Prefecture man in his late 60s recently signed a contract with a funeral home to organize his personal affairs and hold a service for him when he dies.

The man lives in a nursing home, is single and his siblings are too old to task with his posthumous arrangements.

“I’m thinking of preparing for the conclusion of my life as much as I can,” said the man from Yamato, who declined to be identified.

The man was accompanied by a Yamato official when he signed the contract in February because the municipal government oversees the funeral support business.

With the baby-boomers reaching their 70s and society rapidly aging, other municipalities are starting to offer similar services.

Many officials say seniors, even those with friends and relatives, are unable or reluctant to rely on them. “I don’t want to bother anybody when the time comes,” the man said.

Yamato introduced the service in April 2016, focusing on people without relatives or the means to pay for funerals, cremations and other after-life arrangements. Up to ¥206,000 is provided to cover each person’s expenses, according to the city.

After the man registered, he was issued a card bearing the name of his funeral operator and the city’s contact information. Because he is alone, city workers will also make regular visits to check on him.

For those concerned about how to make such arrangements, regardless of whether they have a regular income or relatives, the Yamato Municipal Government also provides information on judicial or administrative clerks who are available to help.

In January, the Chiba Municipal Government, in association with insurer Aeon Life Co., began holding workshops and consultations for residents.

The city’s support center takes inquiries from residents, serves as a guarantor for those who must enter hospitals and nursing homes, prepares trusts for execution via wills, and arranges personal affairs after death.

Explaining the need for the service, a local official said caretakers often say that even though they can care of people while they’re alive, they are unable to make other arrangements once they die.

After a jump in cases in which no one claimed remains cremated with public money, the Yokosuka Municipal Government, also in Kanagawa, began helping residents make funeral arrangements in April 2015.

“In many of those cases, relatives refused (to collect the ashes),” said Kazuyuki Kitami, deputy director of the Yokosuka welfare department. “For those who have savings of more than ¥100,000, we can make plans as they wish if they sign a contract prior to death.”

Kitami said they field various circumstances and requests, including a widow who asked the city to have her remains placed next to her husband’s.

Midori Kotani, a chief researcher at Dai-ichi Life Research Institute who is familiar with the issue, said many seniors are probably interested but afraid to make a decision yet.

“There are probably not so many people applying due to the costs, but just learning about the service offers some reassurance.

“Public welfare services in Japan end once the person dies,” she said. “But it is time to consider public assistance for people (in death) as well.”